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Fluent French

Experiences of an English speaker

by Erik T. Mueller
Citation: Mueller, Erik T. (1998). Fluent French: Experiences of an English speaker.
New York: Signiform. Available:
Read more about French

1. What would it be like to speak French fluently?
2. Section 1: Words and expressions
1. The basics of spoken French
2. Conversational tics
3. Synonyms for good
4. Hedges
5. Interjections
6. Inventing new words
7. Everyday differences
8. Television
9. Common knowledge
10. Tu versus vous
11. Meeting and parting
12. Politeness
13. Yuppies
14. Cyberspeak
15. The newness of language
16. Language change and "bad" grammar
17. Learning new words
18. Cute words and expressions
3. Section 2: Comparisons with English
1. French sounds more complicated
2. French sounds simpler
3. French sounds too categorical
4. French gives a more negative impression
5. Learning new words in English via French
6. An explosion of words
7. Nonexistent words in French or English
8. Number of words for expressing a given concept
9. Inversion in statements
10. English-sounding French expressions



11. Proto-Indo-European
12. False friends
13. Phrasal verbs
14. Noun-noun combinations
15. Punctuation differences
16. Acronyms
17. Common mistakes made by English speakers in French
Section 3: Fine points
1. Tense agreement
2. Antecedents
3. Negatives
4. Numbers and letters
5. Pronouncing vowels
6. Pronouncing consonants
7. Intonation
Looking Back
Further Reading
Additional commonly-used words and phrases
1. Adjectives
2. Adverbs
3. Nouns
4. Verbs
5. Expressions

Copyright 1998 Erik Thomas Mueller.

All Rights Reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in
regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the
publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional services.
If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent
professional person should be sought. (Based on a declaration of principles jointly
adopted by a committee of the American Bar Association and a committee of
Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of
information contained in this book, the author and publisher assume no responsibility
for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any inconsistency herein. Any slights of people,
places, or organizations are unintentional.
All brand names and product names in this book are the trademarks or registered
trademarks of their respective owners and/or manufacturers.
Mueller, Erik Thomas
Fluent French: Experiences of an English speaker / Erik Thomas Mueller

ISBN 0-9660746-2-9
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 98-90278

What would it be like to speak French fluently?

I fell in love with the French language when I began studying it in high school. After
visiting Paris for a week and living with a French family for three weeks, I loved it
even more. I wondered what it would be like to learn to speak French fluently:
Is there a single moment when the language finally clicks and you understand it?
When can you speak it? How long does it take? Once you can understand and speak it,
does it feel as natural as English? Can you distinguish different dialects-both accents
and vocabulary? In the same way as English dialects? How much are the differences
between English and French cultural?
I didn't know whether I would ever find out the answers to these questions. Then
years later, I was given the opportunity by my employer to transfer to their Paris
office. I lived in France for three years, during which I kept a record of words,
expressions, and perceptions.
I have organized this into three major sections, each consisting of short chapters. The
first section discusses various French words and expressions, the second concentrates
on comparisons between French and English (though such comparisons are made in
the other sections as well), and the third discusses some of the finer points of French.
At the end, I will review the above questions and attempt to answer them.
It is assumed the reader knows some basic French, though translations will be
provided. Examples will be given in Parisian French and American English-what I am
familiar with. I have tried to provide translations which are as accurate and idiomatic
as possible in my dialect of English. (Though some readers will undoubtedly find
them ``too American''.)

Section 1: Words and expressions

The basics of spoken French
When I first arrived in France while in high school, I was surprised to learn that ne is
often omitted in spoken French:
written French
spoken French
________________________ _____________________
Il n'est pas trs cher. Il est pas trs cher.
Je ne sais pas.
Je sais pas.
Je ne vois plus Corinne. Je vois plus Corinne.
Cela ne sert rien.
Ca sert rien.

It's not very
I don't know.
I don't see Corinne
It's of no use.

Ne bouge pas!

Bouge pas!


ne is never deleted in written French.

In French before a vowel, le and la become l', que becomes qu', and so on. In spoken
French there are even more contractions:
Je ne sais pas.
Tu es fou.
Il ne faut pas le dire.
tout ce qu'ils font

J'sais pas.
T'es fou.
Faut pas le dire.
tout ce qu'i'font

I don't know.
You're crazy.
You shouldn't say it.
everything they do

J'sais pas is pronounced jsaispas. It is often contracted further to ch pas and in the
extreme becomes simply chpas. To sound authentic, you must pronounce the ch
sound twice, and say chch pas. Je suis is also shortened to chchuis.
Questions are formed without the inversion or est-ce que usually taught in French
written French
Qui est-ce?
O vas-tu?

spoken French
C'est qui? or Qui c'est?
O tu vas?
or Tu vas o?
Comment t'appelles-tu? Tu t'appelles comment?
or Comment tu t'appelles?
Quel ge as-tu?
T'as quel ge?
or Quel ge t'as?

Who is it?
Where are you going?
What's your name?
How old are you?

A rising voice pitch or intonation is used in yes/no questions such as the following, to
distinguish them from declarative sentences:
Ne trouves-tu pas?
Est-elle sortie?

Tu trouves pas?
Elle est sortie?

Don't you think?

Did she leave?

Extra pronouns at the beginning or end of the sentence are very often used for
Ch pas, moi.
Moi, ch pas.
Moi, j'pense que...
C'est important, a.
Ca, c'est important.

I dunno.
I dunno.
I think...
That's important.
That's important.

Conversational tics
There are some very common reflex-like phrases. To express agreement:
C'est a.
En effet.
Tout fait.
Exact./C'est exact.

That's right.
Exactly./As a matter of fact, yes./That's the
That's right./That's correct.

Bien sr.
Eh oui.

Right./There you are.

Of course.
I'm afraid so./You got it.
Fine. (can also mean "fine!" as in not fine)

oui is pronounced a variety of ways. Listening to my coworkers talking on the phone,

I noticed they would say oui (yes) at first and then ouais (yeah). The first oui was
more of a "Yes, how may I help you?" or "Yes, got it" and the later ouais more of a
"Yes, right."
The ee sound in oui-for that matter all final ee and oo (as in tout) sounds in Frenchare often pronounced with an extra air hissing/blowing sound or constricted flow of
oui is often pronounced with what sounds to me like a "smiling" sound.
When interjecting ouais while the other person is speaking, to indicate you are
following, it is often pronounced by inhaling air into the mouth instead of exhaling
from the lungs as is normally the case.
Ways of saying what:
Quoi? (less formal)
Hein? (even less formal)
Pardon? (more formal)
Comment a?
C'est dire?
C'est quoi, a?

What do you mean?
What do you mean?
What's that?

Some other very frequent short phrases:

Ah bon?
Bien sr.
Ca y est?
Ca y est.
Ca va.
Ca se voit.
Ca va de soi.
Ca n'a rien voir.

Yeah, right. (said ironically to express

So, are you ready?/Are you all set?/Got it?

There we are./That's it./I'm all set./Got it!
I'm OK.
It shows./You can tell.
That goes without saying.
That has nothing to do with it./No comparison./
It's like night and day.
C'est a?
Is that it?
C'est pas grave.
That's all right./It doesn't matter.
C'est evident.
It's obvious.
C'est pas evident. It's not so easy. (to do, to figure out)
C'est pas vrai !
I can't believe it!/You've got to be kidding!
Je n'en sais rien. I have no idea.
Je ne sais plus.
I don't know anymore.
Je m'en fous.
I couldn't care less.
Mme pas.
Not even.
On y va?
Shall we go?
O a?
Qu'est-ce que tu racontes? What are you talking about?
Vas-y !
Go ahead!

Synonyms for good

In English, every few years the word for good changes: Before I was born, things
were jimdandy, hunky-dory, peachy-keen, nifty, the cat's pajamas. In the 60's,
they were groovy, heavy, in, and neat. In the 70's, cool, hip, the most, and out of
this world. In the 80's, awesome, killer, happening, hot, and totally rad. In the 90's,
rockin, slammin, huge, fat, strong, and to die for (with cool making a comeback).
There are many such words and they vary regionally and from crowd to crowd. Life is
(was?) wicked pisser in Boston, bitchen and tubular in California, brill, grand,
smashing, and glitter in England.
The same is true in French. Besides bien and bon, the most frequent adjectives
meaning good nowadays are gnial, sympa, sublime, super, and cool. C'est gnial !
C'est sympa ! Ta robe, elle est sublime ! Young kids say extra and gant. (There's a
cereal called Extra and the slogan for La Gode, a planetarium dome in Paris, is
C'est gant ! Gant does also mean giant.)
The word extrme (extreme, total) is currently very popular in the mass media.
There is a television series called Extrme Limite (Extreme Limit) and an ice cream
called Extrme. Even insurance is advertised as being extrme.
Slightly older expressions still used are: chouette, patant, fabuleux, formidable,
formide, fumant, impeccable, impec. Using the prefixes hyper-, super-, mga-,
archi-, and ultra-, more words can be formed: super-bon, super-bien, hyperchouette, super-sympa, mga-gnial.
terrible can mean good or bad depending on the context. Originally the word meant
inspiring terror and it is still used with this meaning. Then around 1587 it acquired
the meanings of dreadful and awful. And since 1664, the word also means
tremendous, so that more recently one might hear c'est un type terrible (he's a
fantastic guy) or c'est pas terrible (it's not so great). terrible is not so different
from the English mean and bad, which can also mean either good or bad.
C'est le pied ! means It's a blast! or It's the most!
C'est le top ! or C'est top ! means It's the best!
C'est classe ! means That's classy!
More lasting and neutral words-similar to English fabulous, fantastic, great,
incredible, marvelous, sensational, superb, wonderful, and so on-are: excellent,
exceptionnel, extraordinaire, fabuleux, fantastique, incroyable, louable,
magnifique, merveilleux, sensationnel, and superbe.
On a cereal box with a bear on it, it says C'est oursement bon ! inventing the new
adverb oursement by analogy to vachement (slang for very)-vache means cow and
ours means bear.

There are also many ways of saying bad. Ca craint is That's no good or That's
worrying and craignos means scary/worrying. C'est chiant is That sucks, and Ca
me fait chier means That pisses me off. C'est con is That's stupid. (The French
expressions in this paragraph are stronger than the English translations I have given.
Use with discretion.)

English speakers punctuate their sentences with like, well, um, and you know. Words
such as these might seem meaningless but there is a certain utility to them. French has
similar words.
You very often hear quoi at the end of a sentence. It's an exclamation and hedge word
which doesn't have a single equivalent in English:
Elle est jolie, quoi.
La vie, quoi!
Voil quoi./Et puis voil quoi.
C'est une espce de lgume quoi.

She's sort of pretty.

Life, you know what I mean!
And that's about it. (= no more to
It's kind of a vegetable thingy.

You often hear quoi at the end of a summarizing sentence after a long explanationsimilar to in short and in other words in English.
espce de, which means kind of or type of, is also very frequently used for insults:
Espce de con!
You stupid idiot! (stronger in French)
Espce d'imbcile! You fool!

Another very frequent expression is quand mme, which translates differently to

English in different situations:
Je crois que les choses sont claires quand mme.
I think that things are clear, aren't they?
Le pain c'tait quand mme dlicieux.
The bread was actually quite delicious.
C'est quand mme trs trs gnant.
This is still very very annoying.
C'est quand mme extraordinaire!
That's really fantastic!
Oui, mais quand mme!
Yes, but still!
Quand mme!

A frequent expression is en fait, with the t pronounced:

Ce n'est pas mal, en fait.
It's actually not so bad.
En fait, elle est assez sympa. Actually she's quite nice.

Another frequent word is enfin:

Yves-et-Simone rpondent une interview en anglais-enfin c'est
Simone qui rpond...
Yves and Simone answer an interviewer's questions in English-well

actually it's Simone who answers...

Avec la Marquise, enfin la veuve du Duc, ...
With the marchioness-that is, the Duke's widow- ...
Elle est blonde, enfin plutt rousse.
She's a blond-mmm, more of a redhead.
Mais enfin, arrtez!
Come on already! Stop it!
Enfin, je crois.
At least I think so.
Mais enfin.
But really now.
Mais enfin bon.
But anyway.

The exact meaning of quand mme and enfin depends a lot on what tone of voice is
There is no exact equivalent to English like which can be inserted almost anywhere in
a sentence, although comme is sometimes used in a similar way:
Il y a comme une similitude de situation ...

which means:
There's like a similarity in the situation ...
There is sort of a similarity in the situation ...
There's a certain similarity in the situation ...

In French you might also say:


y a une sorte de similitude de situation ...

y a une espce de similitude de situation ...
y aurait comme une similitude de situation ...
dirait qu'il y a une similitude de situation ...

truc (thing, thingy) and machin have various meanings:

Ce n'est pas son truc.
Elle a le truc.
J'ai trouv ce machin par terre.
J'ai un truc te dire.
Il y a un truc.
Les prix sont-ils truqus?

That's not his thing.

She's got a knack for it.
I found this thingy on the ground.
I have something to tell you.
There's a trick to it.
Are prices rigged?
special effects (in a film)

disons (shall we say) is another hedge word:

Disons deux fois par semaine.

About twice a week.

If you say oh l l in an annoyed tone, it means come on or give me a break. If you
say it in a consoling tone, it means there there. If you say it in a positive tone, it
means oh boy!

bof is an interjection expressing indifference or slight negativeness. This is similar to

an interjection used by some English speakers on occasion and difficult to reproduce
in print-something like eh or ieh. La bof gnration is the Whatever generation.
You hear hop, et hop, and allez hop more often in French than you hear alley-oop in
English (which comes from the French). The h is sometimes pronounced as in English.
Other common French interjections:
ae ae ae
chiche !
et tac !
eh ben tac !
ooo ooo !
oups !
youpi !

uy uy uy/oh dear/oy
I dare you!
so there!
so there!

Inventing new words

Just as you can make up new words in English, you can do this in French.
One common way is to lop off the end of word. The words below are all commonly
Clipped form

Complete form

baccalaureate (diploma, age 17-18)
profit, advantage
certificate (various diplomas)
compilation (CD)
conference, lecture
popularity seeker, demagogue
available, in stock
(old trademark for) refrigerator
perfect, great
(trademark for) moped
beltway (around Paris)



great, nice
drug addict
verification, check

fisc is commonly used as an abbreviation for administration fiscale (the French

equivalent of the IRS). It sounds (even to native French speakers) as if it is a clipped
form of fiscale, but it has a separate existence, having come directly from the Latin
distinguo (fine distinction) is directly from Latin.
The linguist Henriette Walter points out that clipped words are not a 20th Century
phenomenon-words such as rep (reputation) and incog (incognito) were very
popular in 18th Century English.
In a restaurant, the waiter asks the cook for un jour (= plat du jour/today's special).
Another way of creating new words is by adding suffixes. age is a very commonly
used to form new masculine nouns out of nouns or verbs:
Original word
bruit (noise)
draper (to skid)
essorer (spin-dry)
redmarrer (restart)

Derived word
bruitage (sound effects)
drapage (skidding, loss of control)
essorage (spin-dry cycle)
redmarrage (recovery, said of economy)

The installation instructions for a curtain rod said:

Pour scier la tringle, retirer le pouliage.

I couldn't find pouliage in the dictionary, but I did find poulie which means pulley.
So pouliage means something like pulley mechanism. This is a rare word-a search of
the web using the French search engine clia turned up only once use: pouliage
Harken de contrle de la trinquette.
collage, a word already very familiar to English speakers, comes from coller (to glue,
There was a movie on TV having lots of fun with the word cocu (cuckold in English,
a man whose wife has cheated on him). They used a number of derived words which
are in the dictionary-cocuage, cocufier-but also one which wasn't-cocuficateur.

Everyday differences
At the same time I was learning French, I was also learning various little differences
between the way things are done in France versus the U.S. They seem trivial in
retrospect, but they were definitely noticeable at first. For example, when dining in

France, you put the napkin in your lap right before the waiter sets down the dish or
right before taking the first bite of food, while in the U.S., you put the napkin in your
lap immediately after sitting down.
There is a kind of Melba toast I like which is available in any grocery store in France.
The only problem is that the toasts are always breaking on me. I always wondered
why such good toasts weren't available in the U.S. and then one day I noticed on the
Le Truc
Pour beurrer vos biscottes sans les briser, empilez en trois et
celle du dessus avec un beurre pas trop ferme.
The Trick
To butter your Melba toasts without breaking them, stack them
three-high and butter the top one with butter which is not too firm.

That's when I understood that this product is just too user-unfriendly to survive in the
American market.
At many places which sell food and have tables, with the exception of Quick and
McDonalds (nicknamed MacDo, pronounced MagDo, analogous to the English
Mickey D's), you are expected to sit down and be waited upon. You only buy at the
counter if you are taking out. No tip is generally expected at the counter.
In restaurants in France, a service charge is either added to the price of each dish
(service compris), or added to the total bill (service non compris). So either way, a
service charge is already included in the total. In addition to the service charge, you
leave an additional 5-10% tip on the table for the waiter/waitress (serveur/serveuse).
You are not supposed to tip the patron (owner).
You tip taxi drivers and hairdressers about the same way you would in the U.S.
In many shops and department stores in France, you don't pay the salesperson, obtain
the desired items, and leave. First the salesperson gives you a ticket for the items and
you then go to a cashier (caisse) to pay. Then you bring the payment receipt back to
the salesperson who gives you the purchased items. In a smaller shop the salesperson
may bring the items to the cashier for you. (Since returning to the U.S. I have noticed
that this model exists here as well: In Sam Ash music stores in Manhattan, you pay at
the cashier and the salesperson brings you your merchandise. Or when ordering
takeout at the Carnegie Deli, you order your sandwich at the counter, pay at the
cashier, and bring back a ticket to get the sandwich.)
The cover story often appears at the beginning of a French magazine. In the U.S., the
cover story is never at the front-the advertisers get to try to sell you a few products
first. In French magazines the beginning of an article is often reused verbatim as the
squib which appears in the table of contents. In the U.S. if it is reused it is more
heavily edited.
Even in one of the more respected newspapers such as Le Monde, headlines are
designed more to grab your attention than to give the key point of the article. Instead

of a lead which elaborates on the headline, you may have to read all the way to the
end of the article to find what the headline was referring to. Headlines in French are
ordinary noun phrases or sentences, unlike headlines in English which are in an
abbreviated, telegraphic style (obtained by removing articles and be).
In French newspapers, the journalist is permitted-perhaps even expected-to
editorialize in every article, whereas in the U.S. articles are supposed to at least
convey an impression of objectivity. In January 1995, Le Monde began a separate
Op-Ed page patterned after those of Anglo-American newspapers, in a halfhearted
attempt to separate editorial from informational articles.
There seem to be topics which come in waves in all the electronic and print media.
One week incest was everywhere. The next week it was the origin of the human
species in evolution. And the next it seemed everyone was debating the origin of the
number zero. If you flip between two television news shows, you will often find they
are on the same story at the same time. I'm not exaggerating-in fact Jean-Franois
Kahn recently came out with a whole book on this copycat phenomenon called La
Pense Unique.
In France typewriter and computer keyboards have the A and Q keys reversed, Z and
W reversed, and M moved to the right of L. I find it's not that difficult to learn the
new key locations. Even after years of typing on a qwerty keyboard, in a few days my
fingers adapt to azerty. If I switch back to qwerty, I make mistakes but then re-adapt.
When I moved back to the United States, I noticed the various differences in reverse.
One thing I had to unlearn was giving my last name first, instead of my first name
first. (The last name is given first in French when filling out a form. Otherwise, the
normal order in French is the same as English-first name followed by last name.) I
also found myself starting to say What are we? analogous to On est le combien
aujourd'hui ? instead of What's today's date?. (In English we also say What is it
today? or even just What is it?.)

French TV show hosts say voici les publicits (here are the commercials) or we'll
be back aprs les pubs (after the commercials)-an American host would never even
think the word commercial. Only rarely is a euphemism such as pause (break) used.
Technical things are referred to more often than in American broadcasting:
Les Nationaux de Tennis continuent aprs le gnrique.
The French Open will continue after the titles.
Ce journal est termin.
This news show is over.

On France 2 and France 3 commercials don't usually interrupt a show-they are

instead shown in several-minute blocks between shows. On TF1, commercials are
shown within a show and between shows as in the U.S.

According to French government regulations, commercials must be clearly separated

from programming. Before and after commercials a title saying Publicit
(commercials) is always shown. Regulations specify how many commercials may be
shown, when, and on what channel. The CSA (French FCC equivalent) pursues
violations. When one channel crosses the line, another files a complaint, reminiscent
of the way the phone companies are always battling it out in the U.S.
Prime time for sitcoms (sitcoms) on French TV is around 5 to 7 p.m. Some popular
French sitcoms produced in video such as Le miracle d'amour (The Miracle of
Love) and Premiers baisers (First Kisses) are in a serial format and shown every
weekday, like soap operas in the States. Others such as Classe mannequin (Model
class) are shown weekly. Quite a few French-made TV movies (tlfilms) and miniseries are shown, but very few French series are produced in film. The quality of
French series is lower on average than American ones-to be expected since there is a
smaller market over which to collect advertising revenue and amortize production
Many American series such as Beverly Hills and Madame est servi (Who's the Boss)
are shown, dubbed in French (version franaise). Some series such as Seinfeld are
shown in version originale (in the original language with French subtitles), but only
on cable. Series from other countries such as Germany are also shown.
The equivalents of the American late-night talk show are on in France each evening
from about 6:30 to 8 p.m. Coucou ! (Peek-a-boo!) and Nulle part ailleurs (Nowhere
else) are the most popular ones. The talk shows shown later at night, such as Bouillon
de culture (Culture Hotbed/Broth) or Le Cercle de minuit (The Midnight Club),
are more serious discussions about books or theater, similar to Charlie Rose on PBS
in the States.
It's funny to see American stars appear on French talk shows. Usually they wear a tiny
earphone giving a simultaneous English translation and the audience hears a
simultaneous French translation of what they say (as in the case of Woody Allen).
Other times the host asks questions in English and briefly summarizes their response
in French (as in the case of Suzanne Vega, who disappeared during a commercial
break, apparently upset about being ignored among the guests or being forced to sing
her hit song Luca). Some American stars such as Jodie Foster speak fluent, flawless
French, others such as Lauren Bacall speak passable French, while a few brave souls
decide to struggle through with whatever little French they may know.
Local news (journal rgional) is shown on France 3 at around 7 p.m. and national
news (nicknamed le vingt heures) is shown at 8 p.m on TF1 and France 2.
Here are some expressions commonly used on TV or in advertising:
French Nielsen ratings
banc d'essai
product evaluation (actually
test bed)
bon de commande
order blank
jewel box (for CD or book)
dans la limite des stocks disponibles while supplies last
dans un instant

en direct, direct
en duplex de Milan
envoi en nombre
grand public
le deuxime quivalent moiti prix
srie, srie tlvise
tout en douceur
care products)
Merci de votre confiance.
Merci de votre fidlit.
une page de publicit

(satellite interview from/to
mass mailing
serial, soap opera
freshness (for personal care
mass market
(programming schedule of TV
buy one, get one for half price
creamy (for desserts)
series, TV series
with softness (for personal
Thank you for your trust.
Thank you for your loyalty.
a commercial break

K7 is short for cassette: if you pronounce the letter k and number 7, it sounds like
cassette-like EZ (easy) in American English.
Some product names are altered:
United States
Oil of Olay

Oil of Olaz

In the U.S., Calgonite is a dishwasher powder, while in France, Calgonit gets rid of
the calcaire (calcium deposits) in your sink caused by Parisian water.

Common knowledge
Though a French person might know what SNL (Saturday Night Live) is, because
old reruns are shown on French cable, few in the U.S. have heard of Patrick Poivre
d'Arvor, the news anchor on TF1, much less his popular nickname PPDA. A parody
of him named PPD is shown on the nightly Guignols de l'info (or Guignols for short)
comedy puppet show on Canal +.
There is a satirical/investigative newspaper called Le Canard Enchan, literally The
Chained Duck, though canard is also a slang word for newspaper and enchaner la
presse means to shackle the press, so actually The Shackled Rag. When Balladur
was prime minister, this paper would refer to him as Ballamou (balle mou or ball
of slack; also, mou means wimp). President Chirac is sometimes referred to as
Chichi (fuss).
Some other common knowledge words and phrases in France:
popular tinny car, pronounced deux chevaux (two
or deuche
French FBI equivalent (Direction de la surveillance du
territoire); also the DPSD, SGDN, DGSE, DRM, and COS

cours moyen deuxime anne (fifth year of primary school)
Formule 1
Grand Prix racing
Mr. Allgood nickname of Jacques Toubon (tout bon = all good), the
minister who authored a law banning the use of
foreign-language expressions in bills, contracts, user's
manuals, etc. when a French expression exists with the
same meaning
La Une
the front page of a newspaper
La Une
a double-page spread in a magazine
La Une
Channel 1 (TF1)
La Deux
Channel 2 (France 2)
student of the cole nationale de administration (very
prestigious French graduate school which most high
government officials have attended)
Normale sup cole normale suprieure (prestigious university-level
school where Sartre studied)
student of the cole normale suprieure
polytechnicien, X student of the cole polytechnique (very
university-level French school)
the cole polytechnique

Tu versus vous
When a native French speaker says you in English, mentally it is either a translation
of tu (the familiar and singular form) or vous (the formal and plural form). Some
expressiveness is lost, but there is no major problem. For the native English speaker
learning French, deciding whether to use tu or vous is a bit of a problem.
You might start by using vous, until the person you are speaking to lets you know you
can use tu with (or tutoyer) them (though using vous with someone you should use
tu with can be just as embarrassing). They will say on se tutoie? Adults always use
tu with small children. In many younger circles (less than 25 years old) and when
participating in certain sports (other than golf, squash, and tennis) it is natural to use
tu right from the start. On Fun Radio, a station on which teenagers call in to discuss
their problems, people of all ages tutoyer each other. On the other hand, using tu
inappropriately can seem presumptuous-too intimate too soon.
One strategy is to wait until the other person uses tu or vous with you, and follow suit.
The trouble is that native French speakers sometimes also do this and they are far
more skilled at it.
One time someone who normally uses tu with me used vous and I wondered what
was going on. Then I realized she was talking to me and the person next to me-it was
the plural vous.
The tu-vous thing isn't just an issue for English speakers. One of my French friends
was complaining that when calling perfect strangers within her company they would
use tu. She didn't want "to have to use tu." Recently there has been call for a law
requiring policemen to use vous when apprehending someone.

Although tu-vous is sometimes a hassle, it can sometimes add an extra dimension of

interest to a dramatic work: In the movie L'Effronte, the 13-year old heroine visits
with a virtuoso concert pianist the same age who uses vous with her, underscoring the
difference in their worlds. A few seconds later, she uses tu which then seems close in
a false way. In the play Le visiteur in which God visits Freud, the God character
transitions between tu and vous resulting in a powerful schizophrenic effect: Is it an
imposter? Is it really God (who uses tu with humans, as in tu ne tueras point/thou
shalt not kill)?

Meeting and parting

There was more to meeting and parting than I had thought.
For hello you say bonjour during the day and bonsoir after sunset. bon matin (good
morning) is not used. With close friends you use tu with, you say salut.
When greeting friends or friends of friends, men and women or women and women
exchange bises-usually two but sometimes one, three, or four kisses on alternate
cheeks. Men and men usually shake hands; good friends might also exchange bises.
In business settings, men and women generally shake hands. If you are meeting
someone for the first time, you say your name.
To say How are you? it's Comment allez-vous? or for people you use tu with,
Comment a va? or Ca va? The response is Bien, et vous/toi? or sometimes even
just Et toi?
The basic goodbye is au revoir or salut with someone you use tu with.
Various phrases depending on the time of day are also very commonly used:
Bon aprs-midi.
Bonne journe.
Bonne soire.
Bonne nuit.


a nice
a nice
a good

day. (not made fun of in French)
night. (used after sundown)
(used late at night)

At the end of the week, you would say bon week-end (have a nice weekend).
It is very frequent in French to say goodbye indicating when you are likely to see the
person next:

tout de suite.
tout l'heure.
t' l'heure.
onze heures.
cet aprs-midi.
ce soir.
demain matin.
la semaine prochaine.
cette semaine.
lundi, mardi, ...



in a few minutes.
shortly./See you in a bit.
shortly./See you in a bit.
shortly./See you in a bit.
at 11.
this afternoon.
tomorrow morning.
next week.
in the week.
Monday, Tuesday, ...

la prochaine.

See you next time.

Farewell./Have a nice life.

(In a more formal English, until is substituted for see you.) The above may be
combined with au revoir:
Au revoir et bientt.

Bye. See you soon.

Au revoir can be translated as goodbye in most cases, except:

... et au revoir peut-tre.
... and perhaps we'll meet again.

A conversation with a friend might be closed this way:

Bon ben coute, bon week-end et lundi.
OK, have a good weekend and I'll see you Monday.

ben is pronounced as if it were written bin. It was originally a variation of bien and is
now a kind of interjection used in certain canned expressions such as bon ben (OK
well), ben oui (well yes), ben non (well no), and eh ben (well).
Another common closing phrase is je te laisse or je vous laisse (similar to I have to
go or I'll let you go).
Allez, au revoir. All right, goodbye.
Allez, salut. OK, see you.

Note that allez is used here even with people you use tu with. It is more of an
interjection than a command. Allez ! means Come on!
As part of saying goodbye, you again exchange bises (see above) or handshakes.
Before leaving a store, as a rule you say Merci, au revoir. The shopkeeper will either
say that or au revoir, merci for (slight) variety.

There are a number of very frequent formules de politesse (polite phrases) in French.
Ways of saying thank you:
Merci bien.
Merci beaucoup.
Merci les garons.
Je vous remercie beaucoup.
Je te remercie beaucoup.
Merci infiniment.
Mille mercis.
Merci mille fois.
Merci quand mme.
Non, merci./Merci.
Oui, merci.

Thanks./Thank you.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
Thanks, guys.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much.
Thanks a million. (not ironic)
Thanks a million. (not ironic)
Thanks anyway.
No thanks.
Yes, thank you.

In the polite style, you must specify who you are addressing, as in Merci, monsieur
and Merci, madame.

Ways of saying you're welcome:

Je vous en prie.
Je t'en prie.
De rien.
Il n'y a pas de quoi.
C'est moi qui vous remercie.
C'est moi.
Tout le plaisir est pour moi.

Don't mention it.

Don't mention it.
Not at all.
Not at all.
Thank you.
Thank you. (A shopkeeper might say
The pleasure is mine.

The verb in je vous en prie is prier, literally to pray or to beg. I beg of you may
seem excessively polite, but you have to realize the phrase is not perceived
(sentie/felt) this way by a French speaker. Similarly in English you sometimes say I
beg your pardon? without thinking about begging or pardons at all.
At first when I would say something like
Je vous propose d'aller voir un film.

it would seem too formal. The word propose in English is used mostly in business
meetings or to refer to marriage proposals, but in French it is very common and
simply means suggest.
Je vous en prie and je t'en prie are used in other situations: In response to a request
for permission to do something it means please go ahead or please do. When asking
someone to stop doing something it means please. It can also mean after you.
When making your way through a crowd or after bumping into someone, you say
pardon, excusez-moi, or je m'excuse.
When asking for something it is standard to include s'il vous plat or s'il te plat
(please). In written French there are a number of phrases for saying please:
Prire de ...
Veuillez ...
Je vous prie de ...

Please ... (used on signs)

Please ... (used on signs)
Kindly ...

Je vous serais reconnaissant(e) de bien vouloir .../

Je vous prie de bien vouloir ...
I would be grateful if you
would ...
Nous vous saurions gr de .../
Nous vous prions de bien vouloir ... We would be grateful if you
would ...
Vous tes pri(e)(s) de ...

You are cordially invited to ...

These phrases do tend to be longer in French-a simple please can become nous vous
saurions gr de bien vouloir.
On signs the infinitive is generally used instead of the imperative:
Ne pas fumer.
Do not smoke.
Bien fermer la porte. Close door carefully.

Sometimes the third person singular is used:

Se boit trs frais.
Serve chilled.
Peut tre ouvert par le service postal. May be opened by the postal


At the end of a letter, where in English you use Sincerely or Sincerely yours, there
are a number of longer phrases in French.
A man writing to a man uses:
Recevez, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments
Recevez, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments
Recevez, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments

les meilleurs.

More formally:
Veuillez agrer, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments les
Je vous prie d'agrer, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments les
Je vous prie de croire, Monsieur, en l'assurance de mes sentiments

The classic formal version is:

Je vous prie d'agrer,

Monsieur, l'expression de mes sentiments

A literal translation of these expressions would run something like please accept the
assurance of my best feelings but really they are just a way of saying yours
faithfully. They remind me of obsolete English phrases such as your obedient
A woman writing to a woman uses formulas similar to the above, with Monsieur
replaced with Madame of course.
Formal letters between men and women are not supposed to use the word sentiments.
Instead you write:
Veuillez agrer, Madame, mes plus respectueux hommages.
Veuillez agrer, Monsieur, l'expression de ma considration

There are many slight variations of the above and vague rules about what to use in
different situations. Only rarely will you see a more creative version:
Nous vous prions de croire notre envie de danser avec vous.
Please accept our wish to dance with you.

This was the closing of an invitation to the Bal Moderne (Modern Ball)-a yearly
event in Paris where established choreographers teach new dances to any interested
When writing to close friends, it's je t'embrasse (literally I kiss you).


The largest elevators in France would be considered small in the States. Once I
collided a woman as she was coming out of one and I said excusez-moi to which she
responded dcidment ! (decidedly!). This is yuppiespeak in French.
Some yuppie or related words:
bon chic bon genre, BCBG
fou de boulot
jeune cadre dynamique
nouveau riche

preppie from Neuilly, Auteuil, or Passy
nouveau riche
nouveau riche
yuppie (adjective)

The information superhighway is l'autoroute de l'information or l'autoroute
numrique or l'autoroute lectronique or l'infoduc.
The Internet in French is Internet, usually without the definite article but sometimes
with, depending on the speaker. It is also known as le Net (the net) or le Rseau (the
net). Internet is not to be confused with internat, which can mean boarding school
and internship.
The word for email in French is email, not to be confused with mail (enamel),
though the more officially recognized term is courrier lectronique (electronic
Usenet news is les news de Usenet . A newsgroup is un forum, un groupe Usenet,
un groupe, or un niouzegroupe. A rsospectateur is a passive reader of net news
or lurker in English, by analogy to tlspectateur (television viewer). rso is short
for rseau (network). A FAQ (frequently asked questions) is a FAQ or foire aux
A fax is un fax or une tlcopie.
pas assez de garde-fous contre les fausses manoeuvres means insufficient idiotproofing. Otherwise, garde-fous means railing.
Some other cyberterms:
envoi multiple
Professeur Nimbus
se planter

hosed (as in the system is hosed or wedged)

thread (sequence of messages on same topic)
mad scientist
a crash
to crash
videophone, picturephone

When discussing technology, native French speakers don't always know the French
term. A coworker said she would check ma mailbox instead of ma bote lettres. (I
asked her, Why ma mailbox and not mon mailbox? By analogy to la poste.) Another
coworker knew the word bug in French, but not the officially recommended term
bogue. Chine Lanzman writes in Univers >interactif (one French equivalent to
Wired magazine):
Pour bug, il faut dire bug, et non bogue, parce que ce n'est au fond
pas la mme chose... Qui a jamais march sur un bogue? tandis que
les bugs, les cafards, c'est vraiment commun et emmerdant. Il faut
garder les mots anglais, cela ajoute quelque chose au franais...
For bug, you should say "bug" and not "bogue" which really isn't the
same thing. Who has ever worked on a "bogue"? Whereas "bugs",
cockroaches, are really common and annoying. We should keep English
words-they add something to French.

A zero-coupon bond known as a strip in English is often called un strip in French,

instead of the more cumbersome, official obligation dmembre.
A VCR is called a magntoscope in French, and magntophone means tape deck.
Some objects referred to by abbreviations found in French are: TGV (high-speed
train) which is short for train grande vitesse, and VMC (ventilation system in
apartment) which is short for ventilation mcanique controle.

The newness of language

Many words which seem new and unique have in fact been around for quite a while.
to veg out in front of the TV seemed like an ultramodern expression to me, so I was
surprised to read in Les liaisons dangereuses, published in 1782:
au moins, je parle quelqu'un qui m'entend, et non aux automates
prs de qui je vgte depuis ce matin.
at least that way I'm talking to someone who hears me-not those
automatons I have been vegetating alongside since this morning.
je vgte depuis si longtemps !
I have been vegetating so long!

The Oxford English Dictionary shows this meaning of vegetate to have existed in
English since 1740. OK, the form veg out is probably more recent.
To say that something is just a little too precious is something said either by Chrissie
Hynde or a yuppie, right? No, this use of the word was popularized by Molire's
Prcieuses ridicules in 1659.
pour sr (for sure) is not Valley Talk, but literary French.
The French version of Mr. Clean is Mr. Propre. A recent English borrowing?
Though the purists would prefer otherwise, Mr. has been used as in addition to M. as
an abbreviation for Monsieur at least since the 1731 edition of Manon Lescaut.
Sometimes I would think a word corresponded to a more modern English word than it
actually did: arrire-pense is not hidden agenda (programme secret) but ulterior

motive. clochard is not homeless person (sans-abri) but bum. patins roulettes is
not rollerblades (des roller blades), but roller skates.

Language change and "bad" grammar

English grammarians such as Fowler consider It's me (rather than It is I) to be
technically wrong. But C'est moi has been considered correct in French since the 16th
century, before which Ce sui je (sui = suis) was used.
Another case where "bad" English grammar is correct in French is this here watch,
those there watches: cette montre-i, ces montres-l.
There is no progressive tense in French corresponding to the English I am running.
Depending on the situation, you would say either Je cours or Je suis en train de
courir (I am in the process of running). Until the 17th century, however, a
progressive did exist in French and you could in fact say something like Je suis
In English the verb do is heavily used and in French class one learns various do-less
Do you speak French?
You speak French, don't you?
You don't speak French, do you?
ce pas ?
Yes, I do.

Parlez-vous franais ?
Vous parlez franais, n'est-ce pas ?
Vous ne parlez pas franais, n'estSi, je parle franais.

However when do is used to avoid repeating a previously mentioned verb in English,

it is sometimes possible to use faire in French:
dormir, comme ils font ...

sleeping, the way they do ...

Il court moins bien que je ne le faisais son ge.

He doesn't run as well as I did when I was his age.

In informal English, words which are normally adjectives are employed as adverbs
(good instead of well, slow instead of slowly, and so on). This also occurs in French:
il faut parler clair aux franais is literally it is necessary to speak clear to the
French. travailler dur is to work hard and boursicoter srieux is to trade stocks

Learning new words

Generally the first time I hear a new French word I don't notice it. It's only after
hearing a new word several times that I start to take notice and finally decide to look
it up in the dictionary. Then I usually forget it. But then I hear it or read it or need to
use it again, go back to the dictionary, and at this point I start to retain it. I can
sometimes figure out what words mean from context, but not always very precisely.
After force feeding lots of words and phrases into the brain, I find they start to come
back out spontaneously.
At first I can't keep straight similar sounding words such as


When I saw the phrase le brevet du fil couper le beurre I skipped it at first because
it seemed like some idiom I wouldn't know. But it literally does mean the patent for
the wire butter knife. Though the phrase Il n'a pas invent le fil couper le beurre
means he's no genius.
As in your native language, after you've learned a new word you notice it everywhere
and wonder how you ever did without it. This happened to me for:
plusieurs reprises several times
asset, feature, strong point
give rise to, provoke, create

Occasionally when seeing a word such as or or but, I will first interpret it in the
wrong language. So if I am reading a French text and I see or, I might think I am
seeing English or instead of French or which means and yet or now. Or if I am
reading an English text and I see but, I might think I am reading the French word for
goal. This generally happens only in a text with frequent quotes in the other language,
or if I start reading something without first thinking about what language it is in.

Cute words and expressions

An amuse-gueule (amuse the mouth) or amuse-bouche is a little sandwich or
cracker served before dinner. The order of courses in a complete French meal (repas)
apritif + amuse-gueule before-dinner drink + hors d'oeuvre
hors d'oeuvre
starter/appetizer (also, entre in British
plat principal
main course (also, entre in American English)
after-dinner liqueur

The entremets (which usually involves creme) may also come after the cheeses.
Note the different distributions of entre and hors d'oeuvre in French and English.
The expression entre la poire et le fromage refers to the time of the meal when the
discussion becomes less serious. Yes, it's true!
How would you like a tartine de pain complet? This is just (whole wheat) bread
and butter. Actually, it is good.
And how about a hot dog nature? Wow, I didn't know they came out with a new
health-food hot dog. Sure, I'll try it! Actually this just means a plain hot dog (without
mustard or ketchup). And a caf nature is a coffee black, without sugar.

Imagine my pleasure when I found out that my stove had a minuterie! Oh, it's just the
word for timer.
Other fun words and phrases:
Elle se sent bien dans sa peau (she feels good in her skin) translates roughly as she
is at peace with herself or she is comfortable with herself. This is very common
expression in French and it sometimes also occurs in English:
I've been learning about being happy in my skin, you know?
-rock musician Flea in an interview.
...comfortable in his own skin...
-Oliver Stone in an interview
They move as if they were comfortable inside their skin.
-self-help book

mtro, boulot, dodo (subway, job, sleep) was a slogan popularized in 1968
summarizing the situation of a routine uncreative life in Paris. Recently the Paris
metro began an ad campaign using the slogan mtro, boulot, expo, resto, disco,
dodo, meaning if you buy the monthly Carte Orange pass, you will have convenient
access to many museums, restaurants, and clubs.
recoller les morceaux is pick up the pieces (literally, stick the pieces back
pianoter means to tap at a computer keyboard as if playing the piano, or to drum on
the table. You can also say tapoter.
nuancer means to express a thought taking into account the slightest nuances or to
moderate one's stance.
There's no word which corresponds exactly to the English cute. Some approximations:
mignon (cute-looking), craquant (irresistable), and chouette (wonderful ).
The adjective petit (little) is often used as a softener when making suggestions:
une petite signature
un petit caf

a signature
a coffee

Some other random words and expressions which struck me as fun at the time:
coup de coeur
coup de foudre

"arrowed", signposted (road)

special favorite, choice pick
love at first sight (literally, stroke

security blanket
scheming, mess
sans tamboures ni trompettes "with neither tambourines nor trumpets",
without fanfare
Vivement vendredi!
I can't wait till Friday!

Section 2: Comparisons with English

French sounds more complicated
Everyday French sounds more technical or intellectual than everyday English. On a
cereal box, it says:
Ce produit a bnfici de tous les soins apports aux produits
Si toutefois vous constatiez une anomalie, veuillez nous retourner ce
paquet, nous vous l'changerions. (Merci de nous indiquer l'adresse
magasin o vous vous l'tes procur et la date limite d'utilisation
optimale indique sur le dessus du paquet). Depuis toujours, notre
premier souci est de vous satisfaire.

My English ear hears:

This product has benefited from all cares brought to Kellogg's
products. If
however you observe an anomaly, please return this package to
us, we will exchange it. (Please indicate to us the address of the
store where
you procured it and the limit date of optimal utilization
indicated on the bottom of the package.) As always, our
first concern is to satisfy you.

A more natural English translation of the above, which is more like what the native
French speaker actually perceives, would be something like:
Kellogg's has taken every attention to ensure the quality of this
product. If
you are dissatisfied for any reason, please return the cereal box and
we will
replace it. (Please include the name of the store where purchased and
best-before date shown on the box bottom.)

(After coming back to the U.S. I see they use different phrases than the ones I came
up with: not satisfied, adjustment of equal value, and dated box top. I was
surprised to read Your continued satisfaction with NABISCO Shredded Wheat is
our most important goal which has the overly formal ring of the French notre
premier souci est de vous satisfaire.)
There's an explanation for this psychological effect as shown by Otto Jespersen in his
book The Growth and Structure of the English Language: After the conquest of
England by the Normans (1066-69), many French words relating to government, law,
the military, religion, cuisine, leisure, fashion, and art were adopted in English.
Sometimes French words displaced existing Old English words, while in other casesespecially in the case of commonplace words-both types remain. Here are some of
Jespersen's examples:
look for

search for



Jespersen shows that in general the colloquial-sounding words are the original
Germanic ones, while the refined-sounding words were brought in by the upper class
or educated from Latin, Greek, or French (which itself is derived from Vulgar Latin).
So the technical sound of French results from all its Latin words, many also in English,
but for which English also has more commonly used non-Latin equivalents.
In French and other Romance languages, two words are known as doublets if they
both derive from a single Latin word, one having evolved in the spoken language, the
other having been later borrowed directly from Classical Latin. Some examples given
by linguist Henriette Walter:

French via Vulgar Latin

mtier (profession)
sret (security, safety)

French via Classical Latin

ministre (ministry)
scurit (security, safety)

In English we have artist and artiste, esteem and estimate (both estimer in French),
and plastic and plastique (a type of explosive).
Some single words in French map to apparent doublets in English:
* node/knot
* mood/mode

Pairs preceded by an asterisk (``*'') are not actually doublets.

Some single English words map to French doublets:
English French
_______ _____________

In some cases it may simply be an accident that one word sounds more technical than
another. The word anomaly came into English and anomalie into French from Latin
at roughly the same time (the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is
from 1571, the earliest in Le Petit Robert from 1570), yet the word seems to be more
common in French.
Here are some other French words and expressions which sound technical to the
English ear, but are really commonplace in French:
English impression
more accurate English
___________________ ______________________
a priori
a priori
offhand, right now, on the
face of it
phone number (possibly
plus address)

demander une
fixation normale
in extremis
worthless, lousy
pour la nime fois
Vous avez termin ?

demand an augmentation ask for a raise

normal fixation
in extremis

regular hold (hair gel)

at the last minute
clueless, useless,

for the nth time


for the umpteenth time

rehearsal (also,

Have you terminated?

offend, hurt
Are you done? (eating)
free (disk space)
printing (also, impression)

In dance class, the teacher told me to increase the amplitude of my movements-to

make broader movements.
Of course, some English words may sound overly technical to the French ear: an ice
cream cone is not usually a cne (of mathematics) in French, but a cornet (though
there is now a brand called the Royal Cne).
French seems to have a number of seemingly redundant re verbs:

cool down (compare refrigerate)
meet again

But these also occur in English and there is usually a basis for the re.

French sounds simpler

Sometimes I would have the opposite impression-that French sounds simpler than
English impression
English translation
_________________________ _______________________
Le livre vient de sortir. The book has just left.
Le soleil se couche.
The sun goes to sleep.
allumer le poste
light the post
teindre le poste
extinguish the post
une socit
a society
une marque
a mark

more accurate

The book was just

The sun sets.
turn on the TV
turn off the TV
a company
a brand, brand name

I would think, How can sortir (to go out), one of the most common verbs in French,
have such a specialized meaning as releasing a product?
Again, there's a linguistic explanation: As a learner of a foreign language, I was
simply not perceiving the polysemy-multiple meanings loaded on top of each and
every word. What to the foreigner seems like a simplistic, awkward word in a given
context is to the native that word's specialized meaning in that context. To the native
speaker different meanings of a word are perceived almost as different words.

French speakers learning English have a similar experience: After viewing the film
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in English with French subtitles, a French person commented
that the simplistic spoken English was translated into a much richer French. I had the
opposite impression-black-eyed peas became petits pois (green peas), for instance,
but this may just be because they don't have black-eyed peas in France.
You can imagine how words in English could seem simple if the learner doesn't know
their varied senses. Is turn on/turn off any less simplistic than allumer/teindre?
Not really. I can just hear a learner complaining, "Why do you English speakers say
turning? You're pressing the On/Off button on the remote, silly." According to the
Oxford English Dictionary turn on means "to induce a flow of (water, steam, gas,
electric current) by turning a tap or stop-cock ... or by opening a sluice ..." Turning
was once involved, just as lighting once was.
In English you can also say she turns me on or she turns me off-expressions using
the same simple words but with distinct meanings.
In the book was released, in English just as in French, you could interpret this
literally to mean that somebody let go of the book. You can also say the book just
came out which is not much different than the French version.
The English word company can also mean a group of people, a sort of society. The
noun raise can also be used as a verb, in which case it simply means to lift. English
has the word trademark and the word brand once referred to a mark made with a hot
iron. One tends to forget these things.
Some other words in English are kind of silly if you think about them:
We don't carry it.
Salad dressing
What's the matter?
the horizontal sweep (of a TV set)

French sounds too categorical

French sometimes sounds overly categorical. One time I asked a vendor for a
strawberry ice-cream bar and he said
Ca n'existe pas.

Gee, even if nobody's ever made this kind of an ice cream bar, at least the idea of it
exists! Telling me that this kind of ice cream doesn't exist may seem a little extreme,
but actually this expression simply means we don't carry it or it is not available in
that flavor. And this is not just a loose translation-Le Petit Robert actually mentions
en stock (in stock) as one of the meanings of exister.
Once my mail stopped for a week, so I went to the post office to find out what was
wrong. C'est normal, they said, since there was a strike. In addition to its usual
meaning, normal can also mean to be expected given the circumstances.
In the introduction to a French synonym dictionary it says:

nous avons exclu les termes d'argot : car l'argot n'est pas du
We have excluded slang terms since slang is not French.

What this really means is that slang is not considered proper French.

French gives a more negative impression

In the introduction to a book on sexism in language, it said:
Ce livre prsente, sous une forme aussi vulgarise que possible ...
(Initial impression: ) This book presents in the most vulgar way ...

Bzzzt! Then I remembered the original meaning of vulgar-common to the great mass
of people in general. An ouvrage de vulgarisation is the term for a popularized
book on an academic topic.
Here are some other cases where the English ear receives a more negative or
unintended impression:
English impression
__________________ _____________________
Limonade-pur sucre Lemon soda-pure sugar
sacs vomitoires
vomit sacks
(exhibit, play)
3615 CUM
3615 CUM

more accurate English

air sickness bags
extended, carried over (online

In English, quasi-religious organizations such as the Moonies are called cults but in
French culte simply means religion. A cult is called a secte in French, which also
means sect.
entrer en lice means enter the lists.

Learning new words in English via French

Learning French sometimes helps me brush up on infrequent English words:
avatar (reincarnation; in French also mishap, change)
to bleat (to cry like a sheep, goat, or calf; to
emaciated (very lean from starvation or disease)
* embrouill
embroiled (confused, muddled)
exaltation (elation, rapture, glorification)
scourge (cause of serious trouble or affliction)
fontanel (boneless areas in skull in baby or young
inculcate (impress upon the mind by frequent

* interlocuteur interlocutor (the person one is talking to)

* ludique
ludic (having to do with play, playful, recreational)
Tarmac (after John L. McAdam, Scot engineer who
a type of coal-tar used for pavements)
paroxysm (spasm, sudden attack of the symptoms of a
* polmique
polemic (argument, controversial discussion)
* phallocrate
phallocrat (male chauvinist)

The words preceded by an asterisk (``*'') above are very common in French. Since
returning to the U.S. I have noticed that the word interlocutor is used quite frequently
in English-especially in magazines.

An explosion of words
Take the word pumpkin in English. How do you say this in French? Should be
simple enough, right? The Robert & Collins dictionary lists citrouille and potiron
(bigger). Which is the right word? I look in the Mmo Larousse encyclopedia and
find out that citrouille and potiron are the fruit of different plants-citrouille from
Cucurbita pepo and potiron from Cucurbita maxima. Then I notice in the
Webster's New World Dictionary that pumpkin in British English refers to these
two types of plants as well as Cucurbita moschata. And then I see that the HachetteOxford dictionary claims a potiron is called a winter squash in American English. I
guess the answer is citrouille?
The real problem here is that there is not just one meaning of the word pumpkinthere are in fact several species of pumpkin and quite possibly the pumpkins in France
aren't the same as the ones in the States anyway. (By the way, the English word
pumpkin comes from the Middle French word pompon, unfortunately obsolete.)
You are not really aware of how many different meanings (or gradations of meaning)
a favorite word has until you try to translate it. Each word in a given language only
applies to certain situations and there are few words for which there is a word in the
other language which applies to the exact same situations!
Some French words explode into many English words, none of which seems quite
right: subir means to be subjected to or undergo an operation, to go through a
change, to put up with something you don't like, and to suffer or sustain an injury.
Depending on the context, amnagement can mean adjustment/adjusting, building,
construction, conversion, converting, creation, development/developing,
equipping, fitting out, fixing up, improvement, laying out, making, planning,
putting in, or working out.
Justement is translated by as a matter of fact, it just so happens, correctly, exactly,
just, and justifiably depending on the context.
The lack of correspondence can be disconcerting at first. I want to say "my apartment
is in a convenient location." The correct word is pratique which seems wrong-it
sounds more like practical than convenient. But in French, pratique really does
mean convenient (for locations), handy (for devices), and practical (for training). I
just have to learn all the overloadings of French words, to perceive the many

meanings directly and in their full glory. (I wonder, is it easier to learn a language
which has few words each with lots of meanings, or a language with lots of words
each with few meanings? French sure seems to have more meanings per word than
Here are some more common examples:

accuse, acknowledge, emphasize


approval (of registered dealer), agreement, charm (of

pleasure (of anything)


beading/casing (in construction), (French) bread,

(conductor's) baton, chopstick, clock (woven ornament

on sock
or stocking), drumstick (for percussion instrument),
(magic) wand

shirt, undershirt, folder


adhere (rice), be "it" (in a children's game),

(a course), glue (paper), hang (wallpaper), paste (a

some text in word processor), press (nose against
splice (film), stick (a stamp)

attitude, behavior, conduct, manner


audit, check, check-up, control, monitoring, search,

supervision, test


crew, shift, staff, team, unit (in film)


label, sticker, tag


exploitation, business concern, operation


postman, factor


bitter (enemy), driving (ambition), fierce (look,

savage (warrior), shy (child), unsociable (person)


cord, filament, fissure, floss, grain, lead, line,

string, thread, wire, yarn.


annoy, bother (a person), disrupt (an event), disturb

object or a person), embarrass (a person), hamper

manifestation appearance/symptom, demonstration/expression (of an
large public event or gathering (art/music/sporting),
protest/demonstration/rally, revelation


speech, word, lyrics


fetch/go get (an object), make up (days at work),

recover/get back (an object), recover (from anything),
recuperate (from an illness), salvage (an object)


good/well-behaved (young child), sensible (adult), wise


story, account, evidence, testimony, token, expression


draw/drawing (in games), friction (disagreement), hard

(from computer), printing run/impression, (in


Here are some examples going from English to French:

concrete bton, concret
corps gras (in chemistry), graisses (of animals or
gras (of meat), lipides (technical term), matires grasses
(in diet)

flaveur/sapidit (literary or technical terms),

parfum (for ice cream),
saveur/got (general terms)


cheveux (on head), poil (on body)


pice, salle, chambre


toile, star, vedette


ficelle, corde, fil


analyse (medical),
devoir de contrle/interrogation crite (exam),
preuve (ability), essai (new technology),
examen (driving), test (intelligence)

Even in a single context it's sometimes hard to say what a word really means: funny
(drle, marrant) could mean amusing (amusant), witty, makes you laugh, makes
you laugh at its expense, odd (bizarre), or eccentric. marrant also means fun
(amusant)-another hard-to-translate word.
Trying to untangle the correspondences between French and English words can be
mind-bending, but fun. For example, starting with the word accord, you can follow
meanings in the dictionary until you get tired:

agreement (understanding)
agreement (in linguistics)
understanding (agreement)
chord (in music)


tuning (in music)

understanding (comprehension)
agreement (contract)
agreement (undertaking)
understanding (arrangement)
(human) understanding

When I was in France it would sometimes bother me that there was no single, exact
equivalent in French for a favorite English word. I felt that French speakers, in using
several vaguely equivalent French words for an English word, were clearly missing
something. But upon coming back to the U.S. I noticed French words which don't
have an exact equivalent in English. For example, revendiquer is expressed clumsily
in English as either claim responsibility for or take credit for (a terrorist attack).
English doesn't have the standard word revendiquer so speakers are forced to invent
various paraphrases. But English speakers don't notice this and it doesn't seem to
make much of a difference. Another example: Something that is payant in French is
something for which you have to pay in English.

Nonexistent words in French or English

In a few instances a word just doesn't exist in one of the languages and when
translating you are forced to give an explanation. For example, these words don't
seem to exist in English:

good clothes worn to hide shabby clothes underneath

dining and really savoring and appreciating it
if all goes as planned
pushing someone into the limelight

The French word promenade is a general term for an outing, where an English
speaker would normally use a more specific word such as walk, bike ride, boat ride,
cruise, drive, or ride.
amont and aval are much more common in French than their English translations:
en amont (de)
en aval (de)

upstream (from)
downstream (from)

The following words don't seem to exist in French:


trouvaille au hasard
ne pas tre fait(e) pour le rle de
citer des gens clbres qu'on prtend connatre
qui a tendance toujours remettre au lendemain

(though the word procrastination is used in literary French).

jetlag seems to have no short French equivalent. From Le Monde (November 1995):
Une hormone naturelle active contre le << jet-lag >>

... la lutte contre les mfaits du dcalage horaire, a laquelle

de nombreuses tudes ont t consacres.

The English whatever, as in:

"Those aren't pork dumplings, they're Shao Mai."
"Whatever." (= So what?/Call it what you want.)
"Would you like the door open or closed?"
"Whatever." (= I'm easy./I don't care either way.)

could be translated as Peu importe or Ca m'est gal, but these don't feel the same.
Sometimes there is a more precise word in one language. For example, you could call
a calepin a notebook in English, but more specifically it's a pocket-sized notebook or
pad used for recording information, ideas, or impressions.
Of course there are many cases where an exact translation doesn't exist because the
object in question isn't known or isn't common in the other culture:
diabolo fraise
petit sal
(I could go on

type of modern popular music from Algeria

a certain level of executive/professional employee
lemon soda with strawberry syrup
aperitif made of white wine and blackcurrant liqueur
headcheese with vinaigrette sauce
streaky salted pork with lentils
and on with the foods.)

And from English to French:

petit pain en forme d'anneau
Wonder Bread pain de mie amricain

Some words have a simple translation, but the translated word just doesn't feel the
same. According to the dictionary, the translation of flustered is nerv, but nerv
means edgy, irritated, nervous, or overexcited-not quite right. plenty is translated as
beaucoup de (a lot of) or suffisamment (enough)-and again neither is quite the same
as English plenty.
The English words pattern and clue are difficult to translate into French.
Sometimes it's difficult to translate an English sentence into a single French one. I
dare you to translate:
Click on the name of the person whose calendar you want to insert the
appointment into.

Number of words for expressing a given concept

In owner's manuals printed in both French and English, the French usually takes up
more space than the English.
Some things take longer to say in French: Footnote is note de bas de page. To
volunteer is s'engager comme volontaire (in the army) or se proposer pour.

A cereal box which says consommer de prfrence avant fin 0893 or la date
limite de consommation in French merely says best before 0893 in English.
A native French speaker is a sujet parlant de langue maternelle franaise.
to lock is fermer cl (close by key), but there is also boucler, slang for lock, and
verrouiller which means bolt shut, or simply fermer.
A sundial is a cadran solaire.
Some common phrases in French are best translated into a single word:
en colre
(il y a) beaucoup de monde (it is) crowded
mettre jour
to update
mettre en oeuvre
to implement
laisser tomber
to drop

In the same way, there are a number of French words which translate to several in
attention !

current events (also: news)

now playing (also: currently)
wedding ring
English speaker
bring to life (party)
phone book
assassination attempt, terrorist attack, bombing
watch out!
blind person
unemployed person
air conditioner
live together (also, more technically: coexist)
to make someone feel guilty
lay the groundwork
from now on (also, more technically: henceforth)
teeth cleaning (also, more technically: scaling)
elected official
government employee
French speaker
ice cream store, ice cream vendor
teller window, ATM window, ticket window/booth
rotating emergency light
extremely learned
previously unreleased, previously unpublished
male nurse (also: nurse)
new release, new product
nape of the neck
stationery store
music stand (also music rest, control panel)
editorial staff (also editing)
do it again, commit a second offense
(English has a noun recidivist, but no verb.)
higher bid
above all (also: especially)

The 8-syllable it isn't raining anymore only takes 3 or 4 in French: il (ne) pleut plus.

plus and rien are short in French, unlike anymore and anything in English, which
allows a phrase such as je ne comprends plus rien to develop. This has a nice ring to
it in French, unlike I don't understand anything anymore in English, which you
probably wouldn't say. You would just say I'm clueless.
In English you can say things such as my roommate's sister's stereo instead of la
chane hi-fi de la soeur de mon camarade de chambre (the stereo of the sister of
my roommate).

Inversion in statements
Inversion of the verb and subject is normally used for questions in written French, but
it is also used in statements:
Peut-tre est-ce la solution.
Maybe that's the solution.
Il travaille, aussi russit-il. He works, and as a result he succeeds.

(In spoken French you avoid inversion by saying peut-tre que c'est la solution or
c'est peut-tre la solution.)
This type of inversion may seem quaint, but English has the same thing:
Or so say the experts.
and so is this book
Never in my life have I seen such a thing!
Not since ... did I ...
So speak purist intuitions.
I don't like tennis; nor do I like football.
No sooner had I left than the ceiling caved in.
No way am I going to ...
Only if I study it, will I truly understand.
In none of my dictionaries is the word octothorpe mentioned.

In a more formal, older style of English writing, inversion is sometimes used in case
of a long subject noun phrase (as is done frequently in current French):
I did not know what was the problem with this work (formal, old)
I did not know what the problem with this work was (standard)

If English inverts the verb and subject in a given case, it doesn't mean French does:
Jamais je n'ai vu ...
Never have I seen ...
Pas une fois il ne tourna. Not once did he turn.

English-sounding French expressions

Some words and phrases have such an English ring to them I have trouble believing
they are really French:
Bienvenu au club.
Pas de problme./Aucun problme.
Tu peux compter sur moi.
Cette ide n'est plus dans le vent.
Tu es coll?

Welcome to the club.

No problem.
You can count on me.
That idea is no longer in the
Are you stumped/stuck?

chute libre
enterrer la hache de guerre
est digne de
toile montante
tre sur le point de faire
ondes de choc
payer cash
sans rime ni raison
sur la bonne voie/piste
valeur ajoute

free fall
bury the hachet
is worthy of
rising star
be just at the point of doing
shock waves
pay cash
without rhyme or reason
on the right track
value added

Je viens de manger is translated I just ate. The first time I heard someone say Je
viens juste de manger (I just ate a second ago) I thought the just had wended its
way to French from English. But juste comes from Latin and has been in French since
1120. English just came from Old French.
In English you can say Who are you speaking to? instead of To whom are you
speaking? But in French you can't say Qui est-ce que tu parles ? Still, you can omit
the object of the preposition in certain cases, so that the sentence ends with a
Il faut bien vivre avec.
inventer la vie qui va avec

You have to live with

invent the life which goes

with it
brler les arbres et leurs occupants avec burn the trees along with
Vous vous demanderez comment vous
You'll wonder how you ever
avez pu vivre sans !
lived without it!
C'est fait pour.
That's what it's made for.

This is a slang construction which is only done with avec and sans.
Le camion lui a pass dessus (the truck ran him over) seemed like another example
but dessus is an adverb, not a preposition. sauter dessus means to jump on someone
Many proverbs such as pierre qui roule n'amasse pas mousse (a rolling stone
gathers no moss) have been around since time immemorial, so it's no wonder they
occur in both English and French.
The expression tel que (such as) sounded very English to me, but this phrase has
been in use since at least the 1700's and tel comes from Latin.
The word krach in French (crash of a financial market) has been around since 1881
and came from German, not English!
I was surprised to hear the word trafic (traffic) since circulation is what I was taught
in French class. But English traffic comes from the French trafic which in turn
comes from Italian traffico. One meaning of trafic is the same as circulation (traffic,
as in a lot of it), but it also has the more neutral meaning of the flow of vehicles, and
also is used to refer to drug trafficking (trafic de drogue).

Speaking of Italian, primo (first of all), secundo (second of all), and recto verso (on
both sides, said of photocopy) sounded Italian to me, but actually they are from Latin.
According to Le Petit Robert, planifier (to plan, make plans) appeared in 1949. It
is derived from plan, which it turns out English borrowed from French.
choc entered French in 1521, derived from choquer which comes from Middle Dutch
schokken. The English noun shock is said to come from the French choc.
hobby was borrowed from English in 1815. But English hobby originally came from
Old French hobe. Other expressions for hobby in French are: Violon d'Ingres,
passe-temps favori, and centres d'intrt. For serious hobby the word passion is
often used.
Other borrowings from English also originally came from Old French:
French borrowing from English
budget (1764)
test (1893)
stressant (from stress, 1953)

English borrowing from Old French

test, tt

The following French words are from English, without having previously come from
black (1980)
bluff (1840)
bluffer (1884)
bluffeur (1895)
boss (1869)
building (1895)
business (1876)
hard (1975)
job (1950)
non-stop (1932)
relax (1955)
slow (1925)
stop! (1792)
stopper (1841)
squeezer (1964)

black (person)
to bluff
large office building or skyscraper
hardcore (rock, pornography)
job, summer job
relaxed, relaxation (originally from Latin)
slow dance
stop! (this is an interjection, so you say stop
to people you use vous with-not stoppez.
halt, stop (also arrter)
to put the squeeze on (an adversary)

soft is often used, meaning the opposite of hard.

These words came directly from Latin in both languages:
selectionner (1899) to select
collectionner (1840) to collect
country (land)

Under the influence of English, the verb raliser has been used in French to mean the
same thing as se rendre compte (realize) since 1895. Though common, it is still a
criticized usage. Similarly opportunit has been used to mean occasion (opportunity)
since 1864.

Do native French speakers use English borrowings with me because they know I
speak English and will understand? Or does any native French speaker understand
them? Yes. Most of the borrowed expressions are now entirely French.
Once a French person asked me if I understood the expression profil bas. Of course I
did. As documented in Le Petit Robert this expression is a translation of the English
low profile which entered French in 1970. But one is not always aware that a given
word or expression is a borrowing: few English speakers are aware, for example, that
low profile was borrowed from the Japanese motto tei-shisei in 1964. High profile is
also a Japanese borrowing.
For some French words and expressions it is clear an anglicism is involved:
un fitness club

bowling alley, bowling
talk show
a health club, a fitness club

There is a proliferation of English words now commonly used in French with

apparently the same meaning as existing French words:
anglicism in French
bug (in software)
network (in TV)

"pure" French word

fin de semaine

But ask French speakers whether feeling has the same meaning as sentiment and they
will say, No, it has a different "feeling". Borrowed words undergo a semantic shift so
that they never have quite the same meaning as the original English word, nor the
French word that the English word would normally translate to. faire du shopping in
French is to go window shopping in English, whereas faire des courses is the more
utilitarian to go shopping (for groceries, say).
So when the French government coins a new official term to replace an anglicism,
instead of simplifying or standardizing the language, they are enriching it with more
words able to take on various new meanings. For example, the official fin de semaine
refers to the end of the week, as in Friday, whereas weekend refers to Saturday and
When getting a free T-shirt, I was asked if I wanted L or XL-they just say the English
size abbreviations (whereas in English I think one would say extra large, not XL).
English borrowings are generally not pronounced as if they were French words. Nor
are they pronounced the way they are in English. Rather, an effort is made to anglicise
the pronunciation, but the accent remains neutral or on the last syllable, as always in

Bill Clinton is pronounced as if it were written Bil Clintonne in French. Fun Radio
is pronounced Foen Radio. The Gymnase Club (a health club) is the Gymnase
Cloeb. In general, all u's in English words are pronounced with an oe sound. A trade
(financial transaction, also called an opration or transaction in French) is
pronounced trde. Un trader is pronounced trdeur. The er at the end of an English
word is usually pronounced eur in French, sometimes re.
Jazz and Jack are pronounced with a dj sound at the beginning as in English (and not
simply the French j sound). Actually in Old English the j sound was allowed only
after vowels-not at the beginning of a word-and the initial j in English comes from
French in the first place. Jack comes from the Old French Jaque.
I was discussing the pronunciation of English names with some French friends and
they asked me how an American would pronounce Franois Mitterand. With a
straight face I said in my best American accent FRAN-swa-MIT-uh-rand. They
couldn't believe it. They thought it was horrible.
Some borrowed words such as marketing have the same meaning. Others don't:
___________ _______________________________________________________
un planning A schedule or sign-up sheet (for example, for reserving
a block of time in a conference room)
relaxed (also cool)
depression following drug use
to freak out
pinball machine (with the r pronounced)
CD player
off-off-Broadway, avant-garde theatre
pin, button

French nouns ending with English ing are always masculine.

Substituting one English word for another, the translation of A Streetcar Named
Desire is Un tramway nomm dsir (where French tramway = English
A supermodel is called a top model in French (as sometimes in English as well). The
plural is generally top models, but one magazine printed tops models on their cover.
A relookage is a makeover and relooker is to do a makeover.
French people sometimes say bye-bye, kind of the way Americans say ciao. (French
people also say ciao/tchao.) But in English, only very young children say bye-bye.
Adults usually just say bye.
In France there was a magazine called SPORT'S MAGAZINE.
The English phrase last but not least is often used, italicized, in French articles
discussing the U.S.

Some very English words originally came from French:


bord (on board)
puis n (born later)
verai, varai, vrai (true)


faire (to do)

tenez (hold)

With time I am starting to recognize more common roots: The word for gather in
French is cueillir. After a while it dawned on me that the English cull must have
come from cueillir. I realized that pr and prairie must have the same root. I never
noticed before that just as French has venir and de-venir, English has come and become.
Shifted meanings and spellings of borrowed terms is not unique to French:
English has the word arbitrageur which looks French, but the word in French for
someone who simultaneously buys and sells in two different markets to make a profit
or speculates in takeover stocks is arbitragiste.
prix fixe is fairly infrequent in France. Here a fixed-price meal is almost always
called un menu or une formule.
Though commonly heard, cul-de-sac is not the most refined French, as cul is an
informal term for rear end. More standard would be chemin sans issue or impasse.
toilette in French means outfit, appearance, or wash (as in la toilette du matin,
washing up in the morning). Only the plural toilettes means toilet.
Bastille Day is le quatorze juillet or sometimes la Fte Nationale in French.
La Ville Lumire (the City of Light), a nickname for Paris often used in English, is
not used very often in French. Some French people I queried said it referred to Paris;
others said it was an expression that could be applied to any city.
To French kiss is embrasser avec la langue or rouler un patin .
Borrowed French words in English often have a shifted or wider application in French:
meaning in English
_________________ ______________________
affluence (Latin) wealth, abundance
record of a discussion
the power to entice
trite concept

meanings in French
crowds, abdundance
cliff notes, crib sheet
pace, speed, appearance,
photographic plate, negative,
photograph, trite concept


spread out (troops)

display, spread out

place, recess

poverty, trouble, suffering

kennel, trick, recess, place
improper, risky

The word for risqu in French is os.

Similarly, borrowed English words in French have a wider application in English: a
quartette or quartet in French refers only to a Jazz quartet. A string quartet is
called a quatuor cordes.
profond means literally deep more often in French than profound in English means
literally deep in English.
In France, the (dated expression) quart d'heure Amricain (American 15 minutes)
is the designated time during a dance when women ask men to dance.
One time I was conducting a job interview in English with a French colleague, and
toward the end she asked the candidate, What are your pretensions? I thought that
was kind of an strange question to ask. But the candidate who was also French didn't
bat an eye. Pretensions in French means salary requirements in addition to
Once I was having some food delivered and giving the order taker the codes needed to
get to my apartment. He joked, "Vous habitez Fort Knox?" I chuckled and it wasn't
until after I hung up that this struck me as odd. I mean that's something my uncle Jack
might have said back in the States, and Fort Knox is in Kentucky! Go figure... (Allez
British English sometimes seems to be closer to French than American English.
(England is closer to France after all!) A few examples:
American English
set up a meeting
20 Drouot Road

British English
gramme (also gram)
billion (obsolete)
fix a meeting
20, Drouot Road

des recherches
fixer un rendez-vous
20, rue Drouot

On the other hand:

American English
(for scores of a

British English

zro (but match nul)

Upon return to the United States, I had trouble believing the expression with a view
to (= in order to) was really English. I had first noticed it in French, where the
expression en vue de is used more frequently.

After having been in France two years, I began taking a linguistics course at
Universit de Paris 7, where I learned that perhaps trying to figure out whether a word
was "really French" or "really English" was silly, since both languages are IndoEuropean and derive most of their vocabulary from a common stock.
Compare the words for foot and tooth in various Indo-European languages, in
addition to the common ancestor language reconstructed by linguists known as ProtoIndo-European:




ped and pied may seem quite different from foot, but actually there was a set of
regular sound changes which occurred between Proto-Indo-European and Germanic
(among which is English), called Grimm's Law:
p ->
t ->
k ->
b ->
d ->
g ->


Around two-thirds of English and French words (and an even larger fraction of the
most frequently used words) can be traced back to common roots which existed in
2000 B.C. or earlier. Since then, the meanings of those roots have shifted. For
example, distress, stress, stare, and strict all came from ster meaning rigid.
The different forms of the verb to be came from different places: am/is from es
(meaning be), was/were from wes (meaning remain), and be from bheu (meaning
become). es also led to est/sont/... (the present tense of be in French), while bheu led
to fut/ft/... the simple past and imperfect subjunctive in French.
French vouloir (want) and English will (as in you will) both come from the ProtoIndo-European root wel. French connatre (know) and English know and can (as in
you can) come from the roots gen/gno.

The Webster's New World Dictionary, sitting on my parents' or my own bookshelf

all along, turns out to be a fantastic source of information on Proto-Indo-European

False friends
There are many words which don't mean what you think they mean, called deceptive
cognates or false friends (faux amis). Here are some of the more common or
interesting ones:

Wrong English

Right English

blame (but also: criticize)
correct (but also: proper, decent, adequate,
ignore (but also: be unaware of)
de gauche

free-market (~capitalist, conservative)
conservative, preservative
leftist (~liberal, progressive)


important, large (quantity)

interesting, attractive (price)
mystery, secrecy, rite, type of ice-cream pastry


experience, experiment
to experiment


check, verify

Less frequently

visit in English is visiter (a place), rendre visite (friend), and aller chez (the
militant is not pejorative in French-perhaps this reflects a difference in attitudes. It
can be translated as activist or campaigner.
Some false friends are more true than they seem. For instance, you can say I don't
blame him, which doesn't really mean you don't assign the blame for something to

him. It means you don't criticize him. When you say we need an experimental
control, this is closer to the French meaning of verification. English has controller
and comptroller, for the person in charge of auditing, not controlling, the books.
English has the word moral support, which is emotional support. English has
eventuality which means possibility. One says politically correct, which is
politically acceptable.
Or maybe under the influence of French I'm just starting to forget what the English
words really mean...

Phrasal verbs
French speakers learning English often complain about its many phrasal verbscombinations of a verb and particles such as make out, take on, and put up with.
French has phrasal verbs too.
The first time I heard Tu t'en sors? I had no idea what the person was talking about
even though I knew all the words in the sentence. Translated literally this is You
leave yourself of it? but what it means is Are you managing OK? or How are you
getting along?
Here are some other common French phrasal verbs:
se casser
se douter de
se faire
s'en faire
jouer de
se passer
se passer de
en pincer pour
s'en prendre
s'y prendre
se sauver
s'en tenir
s'en tirer
en vouloir
en vouloir
se vouloir
vouloir de

break oneself
doubt oneself of
make oneself to
make oneself of it
play of
pass itself
pass itself from
pinch of it for
take oneself of it to
take oneself there
save oneself
hold oneself of it to
pull oneself of it
want of it
want of it to
want itself
want of

get used to
do without
be stuck on (in love with)
take it out on
act, go about it
stand by, keep to
cope, get by
be determined
to hold a grudge against
try to be
have anything to do with

Beware of the following verbs:


get away from

borrow from

There are some phrasal conjunctions:

alors que
bien que

then that
well that

while, when

and phrasal adverbs:

tout fait
all at done
totally, completely
on ne peut plus one cannot anymore totally, completely

Noun-noun combinations
In English you can put two nouns side by side and create a new one: college
roommate, car seat, stairway railing. In French you usually separate the nouns with
a preposition:
carte de crdit
bote de nuit

credit card
nightclub, club

I was surprised to learn that (probably under the influence of English) the preposition
has started to disappear! At least in some cases-especially in advertising:
*+allocation chmage
couloir vlos
date commande
date livraison
dsignation article
dsignation produit
+ entres vido
fiches tlvision
formule poulette

unemployment check
bike lane
order date (on invoice)
delivery date
item code
product code
video inputs
television connectors
chicken special (fixed-price meal with
chicken main course)
*+ides cadeaux
gift ideas
lait corps
body milk
listing produits
product list, list of products
numro client
client number
* pause jus d'orange
orange juice break
+ point vente
(sales) outlet
promotion djeuner
lunchtime special
* renseignements abonnements subscription information
* renseignements concerts
concert information
* sandwich jambon
ham sandwich (ham on buttered French bread)
+ sauce chili
chili sauce
+ service abonnements subscription department
* soire cobayes
guinea pig night (trial run at Bal Moderne)
solutions rangement storage space solutions
+ supplment chien
dog supplement (fee paid at an inn if you
keep a dog in your room)
*+ticket restaurant
restaurant ticket (coupon accepted by many
restaurants purchased for half face value
from employer)

Only the phrases preceded by an asterisk (``*''), however, are judged by one native
French speaker as completely natural. Only those marked with a plus sign (``+'') were
judged by another native French speaker as having become common.
The plural of phrases such as the above is formed by pluralizing only the first noun
(more exactly, the part which is outside the implied prepositional phrase).
Sometimes this can even be done with three nouns:
ticket restaurant assistance

restaurant ticket assistance (hot line)

However if an appropriate adjective exists, you use it instead:

______________________ ____________________ ________________________

ligne tlphonique
diversit satellitaire
tudes universitaires
prix unitaire
rue pitonne
stratgie politicienne

ligne tlphone
diversit satellite
tudes universits
prix unit
rue piton
stratgie politicien

telephone line
satellite diversity
university studies
unit price
pedestrian street
politician-like strategy

(But one says Californian Law in British English and California Law in American
Actually French has always allowed two nouns to be placed side by side in the case of

trial lawyer and legal advisor

flower child
panty girdle
spy satellite

An avocat-conseil is both a lawyer and a counselor. A oiseau-mouche is both a bird

and a fly. Well, sort of. The plural of these forms is formed by making both nouns
French also has nouns formed out of verbs and nouns:

pain in the neck
headache, puzzle
shift lock
keypad casing

These tend to have masculine gender and form their plurals by making the noun plural
(and not touching the verb).

Punctuation differences
There are a number of differences between French and English punctuation and there
is more variation in French than in English.
The standard quotation marks (guillemets) in French are and . Quotations are
often set in italics as well:
Mmes les gens qui ont un ami Mouchotte ajoutent assez souvent :
Et comment tu peux vivre dans ce grand truc moche ?
Even people with friends in Mouchotte often ask, "How can you stand
living in that big ugly thing?"

Quotation marks (or italics) can be used in French and English to enclose words or
short phrases with special meanings or to give them extra emphasis:
Nul ne connat prcisment l'objectif final du petit roi .
Nobody knows the exact objective of the "little king."

SVM Mac, a computer magazine, uses French-style quotes for quotations and
English-style quotes (" and ") for enclosing words and short phrases. Paris Match
uses English-style quotes in headlines. Le Nouvel Economiste and Vogue have
switched over to English-style quotes entirely, although the comma appears outside
the closing quote:
Rserv quelques cratures ultra-sophistiques qui "avaient
toujours quelque chose cacher", le cake ...
Reserved for a few ultrasophisticated creatures "always with
something to hide," the cake ...

In Vogue periods are actually underneath the closing quote.

Some publications use English-style quotes when quotes are nested inside other
quotes. Most but not all use a space after the left guillemet and before the right
In French there is usually a space before a colon, semicolon, question mark, or
exclamation point but not a comma or period:
Qui parle ? C'est moi qui parle.
Who's talking? I'm talking.

An exclamation point can sometimes occur within a sentence, in which case the letter
following the exclamation point is in lower case. For example:
Ah ! mes amis.
Ah! My friends.

(This also occurs in literary English.) There are some differences in the use of dashes
in French:

the dashes are shorter

they are preceded and followed by a space, and
commas may also be introduced if they would have otherwise been there:
dote d'un corps asymtrique - de longues jambes maigres et
un torse
abondant -, qui se retire dans une banlieue invraisemblable
possessing an asymmetrical body-long skinny legs and a large
chestwithdrawing into an improbable suburb

In English, an ellipsis (or three dots) is usually used to indicate that material has been
omitted from a quotation or as a replacement for and so on. But in French dots are
also often used to simulate a suspenseful delay in print:
se consoler avec... un tas d'or
console themselves with a pile of gold

Though this is sometimes done in English as well. From Musician magazine:

Kevin Johnson played ... pocket change.

The use of commas and decimal points in numbers is reversed, so that 86,283.10
becomes 86.283,10 or 86 283,10. But when announcing the frequency of an FM radio
station, you will often hear quatre-vingt douze point un instead of quatre-vingt
douze virgule un (for 92,1).
In French there is no serial comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more
lundi, mardi et mercredi
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

In French two sentences are often joined together by a comma instead of a semicolon.
If translated literally into English, many of these would be considered frowned upon
run-on sentences.
In an informal writing style it's not uncommon to use sentences which aren't sentences,
but I have noticed this even in newspapers with a more formal style such as Le
Une vie qui s'est identifie l'histoire de la gauche pendant
cinquante ans.
A life identified with the history of the Left for almost fifty years.

In French style, subject headings often cannot be removed, since they sometimes
provide information not in the text itself. In English style, subject headings typically
can be removed-information in the heading is repeated in the text.

French acronyms (called acronymes and sigles in French) have a different-less
aesthetic to me at first-ring to them than English ones: SMEREP is the Socit
mutualiste des tudiants de la rgion parisienne (Student's Mutual Insurance
Company of the Greater Paris Area). COFRABO is Compagnie franaise du
bouton (French Button Company). Some other company names from the phone
Some common acronyms are:
short for
_________ _________________________________
ASSEDIC Association pour l'emploi dans
l'industrie et le commerce
* B.P.
bote postale
CAC 40 Compagnie des agents de change 40
contrat dure dtermine
Communaut conomique europenne
Community (EEC)
March terme international de

organization managing
unemployment benefits
P.O. Box
the Paris Dow index
fixed-term employment
European Economic
financial futures market


Socit d'investissement
capital variable
Salaire minimum
interprofessionnel de croissance

mutual fund
minimum wage

The initials are pronounced in the words preceded by an asterisk (``*''); the others are
pronounced as if they were normal words.
By 1994 the European Community was being called l'Union europenne (The
European Union). I noticed the use of the abbrevation EU in English for about a year
before UE turned up in French (on April 13, 1995 in Le Monde).
The plural of an acroynym is unchanged in French:
les Fnac
* des IBM
* des PC
* vos P-D G

Fnacs (electronics and audio/video stores)

your CEOs

In fact, invariant plurals are more common in French than I had imagined:
les Baudry
the Baudrys (family)
les Prisunic
Prisunics (similar to Woolworth's and K-Mart)
des Virgin Megastore Virgin Megastores

(There are a few invariant plurals in English as well: take two aspirin/take two
Rules of thumb:

Plurals are invariant for person names, works (of art, literature) referred to by
person name, book names, names of periodicals, trademarks, and upper-case
Plurals are inflected as they normally would be for place names, person names
referred to metaphorically, names of inhabitants of places (such as Parisiens),
and acronyms in lower-case.

Common mistakes made by English speakers in

There are a number of common mistakes made by English speakers in French:

using the wrong gender article or adjective

using the indicative or subjunctive mood inappropriately
pronouncing English names the English way instead of the French way
je vais instead of j'y vais (I'm going/I'm off)
peut-tre il a raison (maybe he's right) instead of peut-tre qu'il a raison
or better yet, il a peut-tre raison
il est fini (he is finished, for example as an artist or politician) instead of il a
fini (he is finished with whatever he was doing)

There are some handy methods of guessing the gender of a word: Words ending in
age, ier, in, isme, ment, and oir are almost always masculine. Some exceptions: cage,
image, plage, fin, main.

Words ending in ade, ance, e, ence, esse, sion, t, tion, and ure are almost always
feminine. Some exceptions: grade, stade, centigrade, coryphe, lyce, silence,
dcollet, t, doigt, feuillet, ct, saut, pt, comt, himation, ligure, bromure,
mercure, tellure (all masculine). (For more detailed information, see the web page
Le Truc de Genres at
If you are really stuck and the word ends in e, feminine is a good guess-this works
about 66 percent of the time.
The gender of an acronym is the same as the gender of whatever it is derived fromassuming you know that. So la socit nationale des chemins de fer franais (the
French national railroad) is la SNCF.
A brand name often has the same gender as the generic word:
une Mercedes une voiture
un Leica
un appareil photo camera

The gender of English borrowings is generally the same as the gender of the
corresponding French word:
une grosse news (a juicy piece of news) une nouvelle
la Central Intelligence Agency
la CIA une agence
le Massachusetts Institute of Technology le MIT un institut

An exception is le NASDAQ (probably a shortening of le march NASDAQ), where

NASDAQ stands for National Association of Securities Dealers Automated
In French, the letters of English-language abbreviations are often pronounced in
imitation of English pronunciation:
EMI i emme aille
MIT emme aille ti
NBC enne bi si

Instead of
oe emme i
emme i t
enne b s

Even if you know the gender of a noun, it may be hard to get your mouth to use the
agreeing article or adjective. If you speak a little more slowly you have more time to
prepare mentally before uttering the word. I find this ability improves with time.
There is a transfer of ability from one language to another, so I am better at
agreements that are the same in English. For example, there is no problem with il (he)
and elle (she). But English only has they where French has ils and elles. So
sometimes I incorrectly use ils when referring to a group of women. But since English
distinguishes between the third-person singular and plural, I have no trouble making
the same distinction in French. More difficult are son, sa, and ses which agree with
the noun they modify, while his and her agree with the possessor. Again this
improves with time. Think noun agreement!
The more you try to translate English expressions directly-instead of using common
French collocations or words commonly found together-the more English you will



_______________ _____________________ ________________

J'aime bien a. Ca me plat beaucoup. I like it a lot.

Le Petit Robert is a gold mine of collocations and expressions such as cela se vend
comme des petits pains for they are selling like hot cakes. You also pick these up
through experience: A woman I had met asked for my telephone number, saying a
peut servir, which I realized meant that might come in handy.
At first it seemed to me that English would make more of an attempt to avoid canned
phrases such as thank you for your understanding-very often seen in French as
merci de votre comprhension. For example, in the U.S. when renovations are being
done you might instead see a sign saying excuse our appearance, which is somewhat
humorous-as if someone hadn't put on makeup. But of course excuse our appearance
is also a canned phrase. In any case, these kinds of standards of communication are
fairly superficial and can be quickly overturned. Language trends in the mass media
spread like wildfire internationally and many of the trends you see in Englishmagazine articles incorporating the style of spoken speech or advertising copy with
short incomplete sentences-you also see in French.
Every day is tous les jours. chaque jour has the slightly different meaning of each
All this is not to say that native French speakers don't also make mistakes with their
language. You sometimes hear false starts such as:
J'ai fait de le ... du vlo-stop.
un nouveau ... une nouvelle technique
a new technique
tous les donnes ... toutes les donnes
all the data

Adjectives in French usually come after the noun which is convenient because the
adjective must agree with the noun and you often think of the noun first. There are
also a few cases in English where the adjective comes after the noun:
bargains galore
something comfortable
Prince Charming
the girls next-door
Coke Classic
battle royal
and other matters political

One restaurant in Paris catering to English speakers displayed conditioned air instead
of air-conditioned.
signaux is the correct plural of signal, but this speaker thought it was wrong and
mistakenly corrected it to signals:
... des signaux-des signals (laughs)

In print, an n elison from en became a nonexistent ne:

Elle n'en n'avait pas eu le temps.

The book Piges et difficults de la langue franaise (Pitfalls and difficulties of the
French language) says the t should not be pronounced in en fait (actually, in
reality), but almost everyone does.
Everyone says c'est de ma faute (it's my fault) but c'est ma faute is considered
more correct (though Grevisse in Le bon usage shows this to be valid and have a
slightly different meaning).

Section 3: Fine points

Tense agreement
One time I said je pensais que tu l'as vu (I thought you saw it). I was told this
sounds wrong in French-since the seeing is prior in time to the thinking, the pluperfect
must be used: je pensais que tu l'avais vu (I thought you had seen it).
French has rules about what tenses go together (called concordance des temps or
tense agreement) which can be found in grammar books. The basic idea is, if the
time is the same, the verbs are in the same basic tense-past, present, or future. So
unlike in English where you say when they arrive, we will start, in French you say
quand ils arriveront, nous commencerons (when they will arrive ...). And if you
want to say when they arrive, we start, you can: quand ils arrivent, nous
commenons. However the tense agreement rules are not always maintained in
informal spoken French.
Particularly difficult is the choice between the pass compos and the imperfect, since
these tenses do not correspond to the simple past and past progressive respectively in
English. Here are some rules of thumb:

To describe a stable state of affairs, use the imperfect:

En 1965, la maison appartenait ma grand-mre.
In 1965, the house belonged to my grandmother.
Il y a une semaine, j'tais content.
A week ago, I was happy.

To describe a change of state, use the pass compos:

Tout coup, j'ai t content.
All of a sudden, I was happy. (= I became happy)

To describe a process or action which was in progress or unfolding at the time

being focused upon, use the imperfect:
Hier soir, Jean crivait un roman.
Last night, Jean was writing a novel.
8 heures prcises, je jetais un coup d'oeil ma montre.
At exactly 8 a.m., I was glancing at my watch.

To describe a completed process or action, use the pass compos:

Jean a crit un roman, et puis...
Jean wrote a novel, and then...

If you would use the present perfect in English, it is probably correct to use the pass
compos in French:
Viens voir! J'ai repeint le mur.
Come take a look! I've repainted the wall.

The future tense is sometimes used in past narratives where English would use the
simple past or would + infinitive:
Pendant quatorze ans ... il dirigera les oprations secrtes ...
il ne sera libr qu'en 1968.
For forty years ... he directed the secret operations ... he was
not released until 1968.
Jacques Cartier dcouvrit le Canada.
Jacques Cartier discovered Canada.

Il y retournera plusieurs fois.

He would return there several
(or He was to return...)

It may seem strange for the future tense to be used to refer to a past event, but tenses
don't correspond to time in English either. One example is at the laundromat, you
will often find detergent. This isn't really in the future-it's a generalization about past
events. (Linguists study something they call verb aspect-much more complicated than
simply past, present, and future.)

In English the word it is often used without any clearly expressed antecedent:
OK, so we're getting together for lunch on Tuesday? I'll make a note
of it. (it = appointment)

In French you would say Je note le rendez-vous (I'll make a note of the
appointment). You would not say Je le note unless le rendez-vous has been
explicitly mentioned.
Where English uses it, French often uses a:
It isn't worth it.

Ca vaut pas la peine.

Instead of using a vague it as in English, in French one sometimes omits the direct
object of a verb-provided it is clear what is being referred to. So one may say Je note
in the above example, and one may say j'aime pas (I don't like) instead of j'aime
pas a (I don't like that).
French though does not always require the antecedent to come before the pronoun
which refers to it:
redonne leur beaut naturelle aux cheveux
(literally, restores its natural beauty to hair)
restores hair's natural beauty

Words such as jamais and personne to me meant never and nobody. I soon learned
they can mean ever and anyone as well:
le plus beau texte jamais crit par Cocteau
the most beautiful passage ever written by Cocteau
Je la connais mieux que personne au monde.
I know her better than anyone in the world.
C'est plus vrai que jamais aujourd'hui.
This is now truer than ever.

I was originally taught to use ne ... ni ... ni for the English neither ... nor but there are
at least three possibilities, with slightly different meanings:
Je n'aime ni le tennis ni le football.
Je n'aime pas le tennis ni le football.
Je n'aime pas le tennis et le football.

I like neither tennis nor

I don't like tennis nor do I
I don't like tennis or

In an infinitive construction:
Ne pas utiliser de lessive la main, ni en paillettes.
Do not use hand detergent or soap flakes.

For either ... or you can use ou bien ... ou bien ... as well as soit ... soit ... or even
soit ... ou bien.

Numbers and letters

In English, a phone number such as 555-3401 is typically pronounced five-five-five
(slight pause) three-four-oh-one. In France, phone numbers are broken up into a
series of two-digit numbers such as 01 36 65 27 66. (France switched from 8 to 10
digits on October 18, 1996.) Each two-digit number is pronounced as if it were a
regular number-you don't say trois-six (pause) six-cinq and so on, but rather trentesix soixante-cinq and so on. However, if one of the two-digit numbers is a zero, then
the English method of pronouncing the individual digits is used: 01 36 00 02 47 is
pronounced zero-un trente-six zero-zero zero-deux quarante-sept. Especially in an
advertisement, you might hear trente-six deux fois (thirty six twice) for 36 36.
For long bank or customer numbers, if printed in groups of numbers, you pronounce
each group as a number. If a long string of digits is shown without grouping, you
revert to the English method of pronouncing each digit separately.
"Quatre vingt" in French is ambiguous-it could mean 80 or 4 20, though 80 is much
more likely. Same in English-"twenty one" could mean 21 or 20 1. Still, soixante-dix,
quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt dix are sufficiently error prone that Parisian financial
traders use the regional terms septante (seventy), octante (eighty) and nonante
(ninety) when quoting prices.

When spelling my name, Mueller, I learned to say deux els-el el and double el do not
seem to be common.

Pronouncing vowels
To pronounce the word tu properly, round your lips as if you were saying the English
word who and without changing your lips from this position, say the English letter T.
Once you have the front u sound down, to pronounce the even more difficult glide
sound of huit, start to pronounce ut (do, as in do re mi) but think huit at the same
time. Some other practice words: suis, bruit, bruyant (as distinguished from
English vowel sounds are generally diphthongized-the tongue and jaw glide from
one position to another as you are pronouncing the vowel. For example, in time the i
is pronounced gliding from the ah sound to the ee sound, and tee is pronounced
gliding from something like an ih sound to an ee sound. In contrast, French vowel
sounds are generally pure-you keep your mouth in one and only one position for the
duration of the vowel.
The vowel sound in vous is similar to the oo sound in English, except that it is not
diphthongized and your lips are more rounded.
Remember to use the same very rounded lips for the w sound in words such as moi
and toi.
The a sound in words such as d'accord and Madame is pronounced not with a back
ah sound as in father, but closer to the front vowel sound in hat-actually a good
approximation is the vowel sound in the Boston pronunciation of car.
The final sound of Brassens (the name of a popular French singer/songwriter) and
other similar names such as Thorens is the nasal vowel sound of fin followed by an s
In Paris, the vowel in enfant and francs and is much more rounded than I had
imagined (or is implied by the International Phonetic Alphabet transcription provided
in dictionaries). It's a nasalized, rounded, back aw sound, not the less rounded, more
front sound used in Canadian French.
Because the vowel in enfant is very rounded in Parisian French, you need to round
the vowel in bon even more to distinguish it. A good practice phrase is son temps:
start very very rounded for son and then let up a bit for temps.
We may be witnessing the beginning of the disappearance of the distinction between
these two vowels. In the history of languages, vowel distinctions are continually
created and destroyed over time. Nobody knows exactly why-laziness or a kind of
"mumbling tendency" is usually cited as an explanation of the destruction of vowel
distinctions, while the need to be different is cited as a reason for their creation. The

distinction between brun and brin is almost gone in French. The distinction between
cot and caught is gone in many American English dialects.
Nasal vowels in French (as in the words amant, bien, and bon) arose historically via
the following sequence of events:
in general
Step 1: vowel + nasal
Step 2: nasalized vowel + nasal
Step 3: nasalized vowel

pronunciation of bon
b + o + n
b + nasalized o + n
b + nasalized o

That is, the m's and n's in such words were once pronounced, then the vowel started
taking on the nasal quality (lowering the soft palate so that air passes through the
nasal passages) of the m or n, and finally the m and n disappeared altogether. English
is at Step 2 for some words-compare the pronunciation of pat and pan. Some
African-American dialects of English take it to Step 3 and drop the final consonant,
just like French.
Vowels in Canadian French and Parisian French seem to be moving in opposite
directions: In Paris the vowel of bien is becoming lower so that it sounds more like
byah, while in Canada the vowel is becoming higher and the nasalization reduced so
it sounds more like byih.
e's which are present in the spelling of a word and pronounced in the South of France
but not normally pronounced in Parisian French are called mute e's (e muet in
French). They are revived when reading traditional poetry or singing songs. The
classical rule is to pronounce a mute e if it is before a consonant inside a line or if it is
at the end of a line. Though I've noticed in some rock songs mute e is not pronounced
when followed by an s or z sound.
In Parisian French, a mute e is retained when dropping it would create a series of
three consonants (where the third is not an r or l). Thus the mute e is pronounced in
n'importe quoi (anything, nonsense).
English is said to have difficult spelling, but French is difficult too-for example there
are 30 ways of spelling the sound: e, , , ai, ais, ait, ay, ei, ey, ... Some-such as this
French engineer of speech understanding systems quoted in Actuel magazine-believe
it to be more complicated than English:
Une des grandes difficults du franais, c'est la non-homognit
entre la phontique et l'alphabtique ... Ce qui est loin d'tre le
cas de l'anglais ou de l'amricain.
A big problem in French is the inconsistency between sounds and
spelling ... Which is far from the case in British or American

The reason spelling doesn't always correspond to pronunciation is that pronunciation

changes more quickly than spelling. For good reason-you wouldn't want to have to
reprint all books every time there is a sound change, and you wouldn't want to have to
produce different books for every dialect! (Perhaps computer technology will
someday make customized spelling feasible?) Here is the evolution of roi and loi
according to the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:


rei, lei
roi, loi
roi, loi
roi, roi

rei, lei
roi, loi
ro, lo
rwa, lwa

Pronouncing consonants
I had always concentrated on getting the French r , l, and vowel sounds right since
they seemed the most different from English. But I soon learned there are a number of
differences in the articulation of other consonants.
The consonants t, d, and n are normally articulated in English by placing the tongue
against the ridge in back of your teeth. In French they are articulated where the ridge
meets the teeth, or even slightly on the teeth. To learn the French articulation,
compare how you pronounce the English tree with the way you pronounce at three.
The dental articulation of the t in at three is similar to the way t's d's and n's are
always articulated in French. It almost sounds like a slight lisp to the English ear.
Some practice words: th, toit, doit.
Voicing is the technical term for vibrating your vocal cords. When you whisper, you
aren't voicing. b is the voiced version of p, d is the voiced version of t, and so on. The
consonants b, d, and g are voiced for their entire duration in French, whereas in
English they start out unvoiced for an instant and then become voiced. To pronounce
the French b, d, or g , make sure you start your vocal cords vibrating the instant you
start to pronounce the sound. I think of it as pronouncing the sound "more strongly."
Some practice words: bois, doit.
The consonants p, t, and k at the beginning of a word are pronounced in English with
an extra burst of air from the mouth, called aspiration. To see what is meant by
aspiration, try pronouncing pin and spin. pin is aspirated and spin isn't. There is no
aspiration in the French pronunciation. Thus-as the linguist Sapir put it-the French p, t,
and k have a "precise, metallic quality." I think of it as pronouncing the sound "more
lightly" and "more crisply." The French t sound is just a quick tongue tap. When
pronounced properly, the French p actually sounds closer to an English b than an
English p, and the t closer to d. Some practice words: paix, pois, th, toit.
The r in words such as trois and droit must be pronounced strongly to distinguish
them from toit and doit.
Many of the French articulations are actually simpler. It's just a question of unlearning
your more complicated English articulations (only when speaking French of course!).
Here is a practice sentence incorporating some of the sounds discussed above:
Et qu'ils doivent vivre dsormais dans une socit de proies et de
And that they have to live from now on in a society of predator
and prey.

The consonants that should be pronounced "more strongly" are shown in boldface and
those that should be pronounced "more lightly" are in italics.
The French l is articulated nearer to the English n: balle de set (set point) sounds
slightly like banne de sette.
In the history of the French language, many consonants at the end of a word have
disappeared from pronunciation. Some surprises: You do pronounce the final
consonants of amer (bitter), Boulez (the French composer), fier (proud), and net
(clear). But you do not pronounce the final c in tabac (tobacconist's shop)-though
you do use a k sound at the end of sac and tic. You can pronounce but (goal) with or
without the t-it hasn't disappeared for everyone yet.
Whether to pronounce or not pronounce the final consonant of numbers is a bit tricky.
The t is pronounced in vingt (twenty) in the numbers 21 through 29, and when there
is liaison with the following word: vingt ans (twenty years). In other cases such as
vingt personnes (twenty people) and il y en a vingt (there are twenty of them), the
t isn't pronounced.
The t in huit is pronounced if there is liaison with the following word, if it is being
used as an ordinal adjective as in le 8 janvier (January 8th), if it is begin used as a
noun as in multiplier par huit (multiply by 8), or if it is part of a compound number
as in dix-huit (eighteen) and vingt-huit (twenty eight). The t is not pronounced if it is
used as a cardinal adjective as in huit jours.
When plus is used to mean more or most the s is not sounded, except before a vowel,
at the end of a sentence, and in plus que. When plus is used to mean not anymore,
the s is never sounded. The s is sounded when plus is used to mean plus (as in deux
plus quatre font six or two plus four is six).
Some French words begin with two consonants in a row that would not both be
pronounced in English. In French they are both pronounced:

Fnac record store


Some more observations: observateur is pronounced with an ops sound, not an obz
sound as in English. version is pronounced with an s, not a z sound. The w in
interviewer (to interview) is pronounced with a v sound. The p is pronounced in
beaucoup faire (a lot to do). There is never liason between et (and) and the
following word.

In French, the accent of a word is usually on the last syllable. A declarative sentence
in French is generally spoken with a rising intonation for each phrase, except the last
phrase of the sentence which is spoken with a descending intonation.

For short standard phrases such as au revoir, bonjour, bonsoir, and merci it is very
common to use a rising intonation on the last syllable even when a question is not
being asked.
When saying tous les or toutes les, a high tone is often used on the word tous or
toutes for extra emphasis. This does sound good.
In English it is common to use intonation for emphasis, where French instead uses
additional words:
Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette histoire?!
C'est ma chatte moi./C'est ma chatte.
C'est moi qui vous remercie.
Ca, c'est sr.

What are you talking about?!

It's my cat.
Thank you.
That's for sure.

Intonation can also be used for emphasis in French, but the rules are different:
Il n'existait pas. Maintenant il existe.
It didn't exist. Now it exists.
C'est son devoir.
It's his duty.

(And of course words can be used for emphasis in English as well, as in this does
sound good.)

Looking Back
Now I can answer the questions I asked at the beginning.
Q: Is there a single moment when the language finally clicks and you understand it?
A: No. It's a gradual and continuing process. When I first started learning French, I
could immediately understand oui and non to mean yes and no. At that point I
understood less than, say, 1 percent of the French language. Since then, a greater and
greater percentage of French is understandable to me directly, without having to think
about it or translate it into English.
It takes a while to tune in to all the exact sounds required to distinguish different
words: the u sound in jus and vous is different, but when someone said jus d'orange
(orange juice) I thought they were saying je vous drange? (is this a good
time?/did I catch you at a bad time?). This distinction is often critical, as in the case
of ci-dessous (below) and ci-dessus (above). Or when they said pour aller o?
(where are you going?) I thought they said pour l'avion? (for the plane?).
I'm still not sure I understand the difference between un nouveau film and un film
nouveau, but for other adjectives I started to feel the difference: une certaine
violence is a certain type of violence while une violence certaine is a violence that
is certain.
I would guess my percentage of comprehension is now around 75-99 percent,
depending on the situation. There were moments when I thought to myself, "Wow,
I'm actually understanding and speaking French and not really aware of it," but no
single moment for me where it all clicks.

Q: When can you speak it?

A: Learning to speak in a foreign language is also a gradual and continuing process.
In the beginning the problem is that you are always hitting up against concepts you
don't know how to express. In that case you have two choices: You can pause to think,
in which case the person you are talking to may try to help you out with the missing
word or expression. But listeners are impatient with silence and if they can't guess
what you mean they will just go onto something else. Or you can try to express the
idea in a very awkward manner using words that you do know. This is the best
strategy. The person you are talking to may or may not correct you.
One time I wanted to buy a fan (ventilateur) but I didn't know the word, so I asked
for an ventail lectrique (electric handheld fan). OK, they may have looked at me
a little askance, but they had no trouble understanding. Unfortunately, fans were sold
out in France that summer. Eh oui. (I'm afraid so.)
Another time, I could not remember the word for straw (paille), so I asked for a petit
tuyau (little pipe). Strange looks, but I got the straw.
As you learn more French words and expressions by reading and listening, you find
that they start to come to you naturally in speaking. And through speaking you
reinforce words and expressions so that they come to you more quickly in the future.
The speed improves with time. I can speak quickly only if everything I want to say is
already on the tip of my tongue. I'm still not able to talk about a broad range of topics
competently in French, but at a party with a lot of noise I can fool a French person
into thinking I'm French for about 15 seconds! Not bad!
Certain words which seem not to have an exact equivalent in English, such as the
conjunction or (and yet, now), took me quite a while to get used to.
Q: How long does it take?
A: After about a month of immersion in a foreign language, you can start to
communicate in it. But there is a lot to learn after that.
Q: Once you can understand and speak it, does it feel as natural as English?
A: The portion I understand feels no different than if it were expressed in English. It's
the portion I don't understand which makes French still seem fuzzier to me than
English, as if there were a slight fog. Understanding feels more natural than speaking,
where I am always aware of my accent.
When I read a book in French and suddenly there is a quotation in English, the
contrast is striking. It's hard to describe what it seems like for that instant-the English
seems quaint, silly, over-simplified, vulnerable, or as if too much weight is being
given to some mundane English text. I can almost hear the English words being
pronounced with a French accent.
Q: Can you distinguish different dialects-both accents and vocabulary? In the same
way as English dialects?

A: So far I can detect foreign and Canadian accents, but I'm not usually aware that a
person is from Toulouse or Lille-I'm busy just understanding. I sometimes notice
differences in pronunciation of words, such as au revoir pronounced as three
syllables instead of two, but have no idea where they are from.
Q: How much are differences between English and French cultural?
A: The relationship between language and culture is a classic debate among linguists.
I will just offer some observations:
The greatest majority of words and expressions are directly translatable between
French and English, which I attribute to the commonalities and cross-pollination
between the two 20th century Western cultures. Even Murphy's Law has an
equivalent: la loi de l'emmerdement maximum (the law of maximum shit).
There are some difficult-to-translate words and expressions-you can come up with a
translation for any given situation, but there is nothing which works in all situations.
When there is only one word in your language, you get the impression there is only
one concept. Upon further reflection, you may acknowledge the different meanings or
nuances of meaning, but the boundaries are often hard to draw. If you are used to
using a certain blanket word in your native language, it can be frustrating to learn that
the word doesn't exist in the foreign language. You're forced to think harder about
what you actually mean!
Sometimes there isn't a word for something-as noted above there's no word for
dgustation in English and no word for serendipity in French. Different cultures do
concentrate more than others on refining certain areas of meaning.

Thanks to Marie Perrin for her detailed comments on this work and the additional
examples she contributed. Thanks also to 15 people whose suggestions have been
incorporated and others who responded to the web page.
And thanks to everyone else who made this possible!
Conversion of most of this book from Microsoft Word to HTML was made possible
by Chris Hector's RTFtoHTML program.

Further Reading
In association with
Le Petit Robert, Dictionnaires Le Robert, Paris, 1993.
Maurice Grevisse and Andr Goosse, Le bon usage, 12e dition, Duculot, Paris, 1986.
J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet, Stylistique compare du franais et de l'anglais,
Didier, Paris, 1977.

Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher, Syntaxe compare du franais et de l'anglais,

ditions Ophrys, 1981.
Marina Yaguello, En coutant parler la langue, Seuil, ditions du seuil, Paris, 1991.
Peter Newmark, Paragraphs on translation, Multilingual Matters Ltd,
Clevedon, England, 1993.
Bernard Tranel, The sounds of French, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
England, 1987.
Adrian Battye and Marie-Anne Hintze, The French language today, Routledge,
London and New York, 1992.
Bodo Muller, Le franais d'aujourd'hui, ditions Klincksieck, Paris, 1985.
Hlne Chuquet and Michel Paillard, Approche linguistique des problmes de
traduction anglais/franais, ditions Ophrys, Paris, 1987.
Jacques Van Roey, Sylviane Granger, and Helen Swallow, Dictionary of faux amis,
Duculot, Paris, 1991.
Henriette Walter, L'aventure des langues en Occident, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1994.
David Burke, Street French I, Second edition, John Wiley, New York, 1996.
David Burke, Street French II, Second edition, John Wiley, New York, 1996.
Genevieve, Merde Encore!, Atheneum, New York, 1987.

Additional commonly-used words and phrases

inhibited, boring
crev, puis, nase
beat, burned out, exhausted
fou, cingl, dingue, zinzin crazy
mignon croquer
cute as a button
New Yorkais
of New York
annoying (person), painful, unpleasant
widespread, commonly found


likely, probable

plein de
quelque peu

before, beforehand
completely, downright
lots of
nearly, practically
rather, somewhat
still, always

balivernes, btises, conneries
la banlieue
centre commercial
courants d'air
enfant gt
foutaise totale
le strict ncessaire
les sans domicile fixe
les S.D.F.
les sans-abri
merde, caca, crotte
ours en peluche
petit ami, petit copain
petite amie, petite copine
pice de thtre
point de repre
sige social
une boum

garbage, nonsense, stupidity
the suburbs
a pain in the neck
mall, shopping center
friend, boyfriend/girlfriend
spoiled brat
total crap
mess, waste (as in gchis politique)
the bare essentials
the homeless
the homeless
the homeless
food (used with children), nanny
teddy bear
night (spent in a hotel)
teddy bear
point of reference
main office, national headquarters
a party
opening (at an art gallery)

annuler un rendez-vous
avoir (un) rendez-vous
dcaler un rendez-vous
tre de retour
faire a
faire la fte

cancel an appointment
have an appointment
cram (for a test)
reschedule an appointment
tear up
to deposit (a check)
come back
do it
party, celebrate

faire la grasse matine

faire la tte
fixer (un) rendez-vous
prendre la parole
prendre son pied
prendre (un) rendez-vous
prendre un pot
prendre un verre
s'occuper de
se rgaler
se remmorer

sleep in
set an appointment
enjoy, savor, climax
dump (a boyfriend/girlfriend)
take the floor, speak
get a kick out of something
make an appointment
go for a drink
go for a drink
miss (a plane, a TV show)
have a ball
take care of, worry about
feast, regale
stand, bear
deceive, cheat on
hang around

3 heures pile
3 heures tapant
peu prs
une exception prs
un franc prs
l'issue de
d'ici un an
dans les mois qui viennent
de quoi
en effet
en particulier
en passe de
en permanence
en voie de disparition
faire gaffe
faire une gaffe
hutres volont
jusqu' prsent
jusqu'au bout
laissez tomber
le Franais moyen
mercredi 12
ne ft-ce que pour
oublie, oubliez
ouverture exceptionnelle
patatras !
petit petit
pas pas
que sais je
rupture de stock
sauf erreur
si je comprends bien
si je ne m'abuse
si je ne me trompe
soit (t pronounced)

at 3 o'clock sharp
at 3 o'clock on the dot
except for one thing
give or take a franc
at the end of
within a year, a year from now
in the upcoming months
means, reason
that's right
in private
about to
endangered (species)
watch out
oysters-all you can eat
so far
all the way, to the very end
forget it, never mind, let it go
the average Frenchperson
Wednesday the 12th
even if only to
forget I even said it
holiday hours (department store)
little by little
step by step
what have you
even if it means
out of stock
unless I am mistaken
if I understand correctly
unless I am mistaken
unless I am mistaken
so be it

soit (t not pronounced)

which brings/makes a total of
tandis que
whereas, while
tant mieux
good for him/her/them
tant pis
too bad, never mind
bullshit! I don't believe you!
tout coup
suddenly, all of a sudden
tout l'heure
in a second, a second ago
tout de suite
immediately, right away
Allez les enfants.
Come on, kids.
Avec ceci?/Avec a?
Will that be all? (at grocery counter)
Ca me fait chier.
That really pisses me off.
Ca vous drange si je ... ?
Do you mind if I ... ?
Ca vous va?
Is it OK with you?
Ca va s'arranger.
Things will work themselves out.
C'est faux.
That's wrong. (a word, a dance
step, ...)
C'est impossible louper.
You can't miss it. (when giving
C'est juste?
Is that correct? (said of change)
C'est la raison pour laquelle ...
That's why ...
C'est pas trop tt !
Never too soon!
C'est pour a que je ...
That's why I ...
C'est un petit peu dommage.
That's a bit of a shame.
C'est un petit peu compliqu.
It's sort of complicated.
C'tait bien vous.
It was you all right.
Comme a.
Just because.
Elle est en ligne.
She's on another line.
Est-ce que a te branche?
Sound good to you?
Est-ce que a te dit?
Sound good to you?
Faut pas rver!
Get real!/In your dreams!
Il n'y a pas de quoi rire.
There's no reason to laugh.
J'ai beau essayer, je peux pas. Try as I might, I can't do it.
J'ai du mal ...
I have trouble ...
J'ai toujours su que...
I've always known...
Je suis plus accommodant que vous ne le pensez.
I'm more easygoing than you think.
Je ne sais que faire.
I don't know what to do.
Je ne sais pas quoi faire.
I don't know what to do.
Je n'arrive pas ...
I am having trouble ..., I can't seem
to ...
L, vous allez fort!
You're really going off on a limb
Moi je dconne.
I'm talking nonsense.
On est bien comme a.
I'm happy.
On est en dmocratie!
It's a free country!
On est en rpublique!
It's a free country!
On se retrouve au caf.
We'll meet at the caf.
Parce que parce que.
Just because.
Parisien de souche
Parisian born and bred
Pas question!
Out of the question!/No way!
Pourquoi tu dis a?
Why do you say that?
Qu'est-ce que vous faites dans la vie?
What do you do for a living?
Qu'est-ce que tu me racontes?
So what's up?
So be it.
Surtout pas.
Certainly not.
T'as bien dormi?
Did you sleep well?
T'as qu' suivre.
All you have to do is follow. Sheesh.
T'as qu' venir.
Just come along, silly.
Tu fais bel avoir...
It would be good for you to have...

Tu l'as fait exprs?

Veuillez patienter.

Did you do that on purpose?

Please hold. (on telephone)